Open mouth, insert foot. It’s the verbal version of walking through the restaurant with toilet paper on your shoe. We’ve all experienced the mortification of poor verbal choices. Sometimes, embarrassing stuff just happens. Letting those blunders happen more often than not, though, is a problem that goes beyond stuff that sometimes happens.
In fact, as I describe on my website www.BeingHeardNow.,com, verbal pratfalls reflect how good your communication skills are overall. Luckily, preventing verbal embarrassment is surprisingly easy.
1. Slow Down: I’m reminded of reading only the first part of a test question only to have it turn out that the actual question was in the part I didn’t take time to read. Being impatient diminishes the amount of information you have at hand, which leads to uninformed or ill-informed comments. You haven’t demonstrated complete interest in someone else; you’ve taken over control of their speech. You’re seen as self-centered, rude, brainless and uncaring. Men report that women talk too much, citing that as the reason they don’t listen. Whatever the cause, look for the speaker to shut down and become disinterested in you as a conversation partner.
2. Pay Attention: It is nothing short of insulting when the listener doesn’t appear to be listening. The oops can be verbal or non-verbal: eyes looking elsewhere instead of making contact with the speaker; paying attention to your own task while saying you’re listening; saying something irrelevant to the conversation. Some of my worst oopses have come from replacing the speaker’s reality with my own. The result is that I’m left behind and the speaker knows it’s because I’ve broken a cardinal rule of good communication: I haven’t paid attention. I cringe every time I look at a picture taken at a business function where one of the guys I’m talking to is looking around the room, not at me. When that happens to you pay attention to how you feel; I guarantee you won’t do it to anyone else.
2. Stop Assuming: Unless your crystal-ball is in good working order, acknowledge you don’t know everything. Take in what your environment is really about; those who assume don’t. The result includes finishing other peoples” sentences, interrupting with comments that go in the wrong direction, misinterpreting what’s really being said. Women pull out their crystal balls when they complain that their partners don’t talk to them, or even listen in the first place. The assumption is that a partner’s thoughts, and especially feelings, are being purposely withheld. The result can lead to a rift that is about far more than what the topic of conversation was. Want a clue? Look for a surprised or confused look from the speaker.
3. When in Doubt: People are generally uncomfortable with dead air. If you doubt that’s true, pay attention to your comfort level when the radio or t.v. looses sound. In fact, there is no rule that says that the air must be filled with someone always saying something. For some of us, the tendency to chatter takes hold, resulting in poor or unconsidered statements. When in doubt, zip it.
4. Apologize Sincerely: There are times when everything you’ve done has turned out wrong. Your enthusiasm leads to interruptions, perhaps because of identifying so much with the speaker’s topic you take over. Other times your disinterest may show. Or you may fail to edit yourself: what comes up, comes out. There are so many examples, I’m sure everyone can think of a cringe-worthy moment. Whether or not you’re responsible, tune immediately into the speaker. Be truly sincere when you say how sorry you are you’ve caused confusion or distress. People generally react warmly to someone who really cares how they feel. Don’t make it long and drawn out and be light-hearted if you can. Whatever you do, don’t put blame out there somewhere. Accept responsibility and be sincere about it.
5. Know Yourself: I’m an inveterate talker because I’m so curious. I know, too, that when I get nervous I talk too much. Two thousand feet down in the Molly Kathleen gold mine, you couldn’t shut me up; the tour guide finally stopped acknowledging me at all and my husband pretended like he didn’t know me. When I tuned in to their non-verbal responses to me, I knew to be quiet.
Truth is that sometimes goofs happen. Part of what makes us endearing is having flaws and being vulnerable because of them. Pay attention to basic communication skills; you’ll benefit from not crossing the line into mean, and your oopses will be quickly forgiven.
Kathe Skinner is a Colorado Springs Relationship Coach with a sub-specialty working with couples whose relationship has been impacted by invisible disability. She herself has MS. Kathe and her husband, David, teach Couples Communication Classes along the Front Range of Colorado. Personal experience makes them believers that good communication skills are necessary for a successful relationship.