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'Don't Let Somebody Else's Words Dictate the Discussion All the Time'

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AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: We're back with management expert Kathleen Kelley Reardon, talking about her new book, "Comebacks at Work: Using Conversation to Master Confrontation."

RS: She says dealing with different kinds of people requires different kinds of communication strategies.

KATHLEEN REARDON: "People that are spoilers, for example, that, you know, every time you say something, they say 'Oh, we did that already.'"

RS: "So you -- "

'Don't Let Somebody Else's Words Dictate the Discussion All the Time'
'Don't Let Somebody Else's Words Dictate the Discussion All the Time'

KATHLEEN REARDON: "Well, you say 'Well, you know, we did do something like this at a different point in time. And you're right, it didn't work. Now I'm proposing that we do something different from it, at a propitious point of time, and it's going to work.

"So you'd don't dismiss what they said, that it was done before, something like it. But you don't fight them on their words. In other words, you don't let somebody else's words dictate how the discussion is going to go all the time."

AA: "Well, you have to be -- if you're going to say 'It's going to work this time,' you have to be pretty sure it's going to work this time or else that person is going to have more ammunition the next time."

RS: "Or at least have a plan."

KATHLEEN REARDON: "Yeah, but you can't live in fear. [Laughter]"

AA: "True."

KATHLEEN REARDON: "I mean, that's what 'Comebacks' is about, too. People live in constant fear of what somebody's going to say. That's not a good use of time, and we've all been there. I'm not saying that you can give up planning how you might present your ideas.

"I'm talking about those situations where you walk into a meeting and somebody says 'Oh, look who decided to show up today -- and on time.' Those things happen in the workplace all the time. And they happen at school to kids. They happen at meetings of the church choir. It's just life."

AA: "Now, you teach at the University of Southern California. That has a large population of international students. I'm curious, have you seen differences among your students in how they respond to what might be perceived as an insult, or how they interact?"

KATHLEEN REARDON: "Right. I taught in the international MBA program for several years and we used to have running conversations about the directness of American students and their tendency to handle on the spot what was happening, at the sacrifice of the process of what was going on in front of them.

"And so the saving of relationships was less important. You know, I'm sort of paraphrasing what the students from Japan, from Asian countries and elsewhere were saying -- that they were willing, too willing to sacrifice a person's face or their relationship with them in order to give some cute comment or provide some humor for a few minutes, which created strain in the ongoing project they'd be working on. So that was very typical."

AA: "You mean that the Americans were willing to sacrifice, seemed willing to -- so those students must have been maybe shocked to see that?"

KATHLEEN REARDON: "It was culture shock for a little while. And, you know, it was a very good thing to hear, because the students who were doing that didn't intend to do it in most cases. They wanted the project to be a success just as much as anyone else. But when it's a product of your culture and it's inbred like it is -- and you know that people are often promoted in American companies because of their quick-witted responses on their feet, or at least that's what you think is going to happen in a lot of companies -- then you do that kind of thing.

"And I spent time in my classes with them showing them that the same thing could be accomplished without shutting doors to working well with somebody in the future. And, actually, unless an organization is highly political or -- you know, what I've written about in 'Secret Handshake,' another book -- pathologically political, most of the time people don't appreciate what sometimes MBAs think is a way to show how bright you are."

RS: Kathleen Reardon is a management professor on leave from the University of Southern California, and the author, with Christopher Noblet, of "Comebacks at Work: Using Conversation to Master Confrontation."

AA: You can find the first part of our interview and download our podcasts at And that's WORDMASTER for this week. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.