Say The Right Words!

by Stephen Boyd | June 30, 2004

We all struggle with saying the wrong thing at times. There are situations when we regret what we said or wish we had said the message in a different way. We have all apologized at some point because we made a comment that offended or embarrassed someone. Here are suggestions for avoiding "foot-in-mouth" problems.

Listen before you talk. Find out what the tone and context of the conversation is before you contribute. As the Chinese proverb states, "From listening comes wisdom and from speaking comes repentance." After you listen for a few moments, ask a question to get a better understanding of the nature of the discussion. After using these two techniques, then give your opinion or make your comment.

Avoid making a critical remark. You never know who might be connected to the person or object of your criticism and your comment might offend him or her. Besides it is simply better to avoid being negative in conversation. People don’t like to be around people who have a judgmental outlook. Save the critical remark for a private conversation with the person or persons involved, or don’t say it at all..

Pause before you respond to the person talking to you. The extra couple of seconds allows you time to think before you speak. Your word choice will be better and your contributions will be more concise. Stepping on the last line of the talker, even if what you say is relevant and useful, may not have the impact you want because the person may feel that you were intrusive.

Keep the conversation centered on the other person rather than on you. Asking questions about what the talker has said and clarifying ideas he or she has made will help insure that the speaker sees your contribution as relevant and interesting. Of course in the process you will be learning information about the talker which in the future can be useful to you in your relationship with that person. For example, learning that the talker has a background in riding and caring for horses might give you a point of reference in a future conversation.

With just a little preparation by listening, pausing, finding a positive way to make a comment, and being talker-centered, we can avoid the embarrassment of apologizing because we made an inappropriate comment.

About the Author

Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. He presents keynotes and seminars to corporations and associations whose people want to speak and listen effectively. See additional articles and resources at To book Steve, call 800-727-6520 or email him through his website.

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