How to Say the Right Thing at the Right Time: 3 Great Tips

Having the gift of the gab is certainly a valued talent. Some people can weave words and spin perfect sentences without thinking twice, whereas the rest of us miss our social cues, and badly. With the exception of those lucky few who always know what to say and when, most of us bumble through board meetings and stumble into conversations without catching wind of the mood or tone first.

We’d all like to avoid putting our feet in our mouths, thereby sparing ourselves and our listening partners of awkward silences and truckloads of embarrassment. So here’s 3 ways to help you avoid um-ing, ah-ing and err-ing during those crucial moments.

  1. Score yourself some extra time

Been put on the spot? It’s a tricky situation to escape from. Like that time when your child tugged your sleeve and asked loudly where babies come from in the middle of the supermarket? How about when that TV host shoved that microphone into your face and all you could say was, “Ummm…”?

Luckily we’re not politicians in a presidential debate – unlike them, you have the luxury of time on your side. Rather than stammering, stuttering or shooting off a quick-yet-boring answer, you can be diplomatic by stating simply that you need a few seconds. Try using: “Let me think for a minute,” “I’ll answer that soon,” or even, “I never thought about that before, give me a moment…” This is a polite way to buy yourself some time (and patience) from your conversation partner while you prepare a response.

  1. Side-step the silences

Picture this: boardroom meeting, nine a.m. You’re still daydreaming over your mug of coffee when suddenly you realize there’s silence and everyone’s looking at you, especially your boss. Cue the crickets chirping while you hurriedly gather your thoughts to try and answer that question that you unfortunately didn’t hear. Ouch.

Instead of getting embarrassed trying to defend your lack of concentration, switch into offence mode, stat. Do you really want to risk answering a question you only half-heard, if at all? There’s no shame in asking, “Can you repeat that, please?” Or even, “Sorry, didn’t quite catch that?” Admitting that you lost train of thought is far less embarrassing, not to mention, way less awkward, than putting your foot in your mouth by saying the wrong thing.

  1. Don’t assume you know the answer

Last but not least is the golden rule of all conversations, big or small: unless you’re a professional in the field or your viewpoint was requested, avoid making objective statements or offer unasked-for advice, especially when emotions are running high.

Here’s what we mean: we all know that mourners are going through some difficult adjustments, likewise those whose businesses have collapsed or who have been diagnosed with cancer. Although it is socially acceptable to say, “We’re sorry for your loss,” or, “We’re sorry to hear that,” don’t ever, ever follow it with, “It’s going to be okay,” or “I know how you feel.” These two lines are classic conversation slayers and just make you look arrogant or unthoughtful. Who gave you the right to assume how someone feels? Maybe they’re still absorbing the enormity of it all and aren’t ready to look for the light at the end of the tunnel? So unless it’s actually happened to you, or you’ve been asked about your experience, ask a question instead. “What have you been doing to cope?” or “Is there anything that we can help you with?” will do the trick just nicely.

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