Just Saying: Responses less travelled

By Shelley Wildgen

“I should have said…” is a much said line. Maybe it’s because what we should have said has far more value than what we did say. Should-have-saids are sparkling and witty and always turn our conversations in the direction we wish they had gone. Those should-have-saids are conversational rock stars. Shiny and unattainable.

We’ve all gone places we didn’t want to go, okayed plans we didn’t want to make, spoken our mind blindly, engaged in long conversations we didn’t want to have, alienated someone with an unnecessarily sarcastic comment (OK, maybe that’s just me). That’s a lot of misfires and over a lifetime they add up to one collective sigh of irretrievable time.

So, how does that happen? I hazard to say we make it happen. Our lives are filled with “I should have said….”’s. Loads of them. Why don’t we exercise the same caution for our verbal selves as we do for our physical selves before stepping in front of a bus? Take a few beats to make sure we’ve selected the safest and most energy efficient response?

The 1998 movie ‘Sliding Doors’ is a parallel universe type film where a woman gets to see how alternative small decisions would have changed everything in her life. On a large scale, that is just too much to wrap a brain around but is it possible our day to day dealings with folk would be coloured far differently if we dug a little deeper into the crayon box of responses? So, no regrets for not saying yes to the dweeby guy in high school who grew into the hippest, coolest, dead-funny and strikingly handsome political activist. No, I mean, change our everyday, seemingly inconsequential responses and see where we land.

My mom had a penchant for never providing a quick answer. If I called her to go for lunch, she’d always say, “That sounds nice. Let me call you back in 15 minutes.” Grrrr. Just say “yes” and let’s go! Where on earth did she have to check while doing her crossword puzzles from her recliner chair? Fifteen minutes later, the call always came and she confirmed lunch was a go. She later explained that she liked to have 15 minutes to make sure no one else needed the car, make sure there wasn’t anything else happening, sort of catch her breath and then agree to go, instead of agreeing to go right away and then feeling the pressure of a forgotten scheduling conflict. It made good sense. All from one unexpected response. Well, not one. Eventually, I saw several of those 15-minute delays utilized but I respected them.

There are times though when even carefully crafted public responses can fall flat. Back in the ‘80s, Nancy Reagan’s ‘Just Say No to Drugs’ tagline advice was meant to create healthy consciousness raising in response to a national drug problem. As easy as choosing to have a V8, right? Arguably, ‘Just Say No to Drugs’ became one of the most ineffective sentences ever. Perhaps, Nancy could have coined something a bit more comprehensive and motivational. What a societal difference it could have made! No, I don’t know what she should have said but her fat salaried PR people certainly should have.

Turn left instead of right.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book called ‘Blink’ about how we make all huge decisions in a micro-second. Well no wonder we feel the need to reinforce those immediate decisions with words…fast. Slowing down the process can be as simple as stockpiling a handful of go-to responses instead of relying on the ones that fall out of our mouths first. Sort of like changing a potential road rage incident by using your expression finger to hook your hair behind your ear. Potential disaster averted and hair tidied in one quick, yet well thought out gesture.

I once knew a woman who attained great success and a glistening corporate corner office simply by exuding calm and using the same phrase whenever disappointment landed at her door. Instead of scoldings about bad numbers or lacklustre efforts, she’d look warmly at her staff, smile and say, “We worked hard, but didn’t hit the mark – so next year we’re going to try even harder.” Everyone left the meeting feeling good and softly encouraged, wanting to please her, while she got to snuggle into her corner office year after year.

Oh, here’s a good one…simple too. It’s nothing that would send Oscar Wilde running for his quill, but effective nonetheless. Caught in a conversation you don’t want to be in can be tortuous. Whether bored or uncomfortable the art of diffusing can be difficult so remembering this one word is a game-changer. It’s not judgemental and best of all it doesn’t require further chat. “Interesting” is a response worth tucking away for verbal emergencies. It’s polite and provides the illusion of being involved but leaves no open avenues for further discourse. Even a volatile conversation can be diffused with a well-placed “interesting.” Sometimes one to three (never more) ‘interestings’ are needed but they always work…and no one has to be rude.

Suffice to say a good response doesn’t have to sparkle, it just has to have a little thought given before instead of after. A pondered reaction versus an initial reaction. Turn it upside down, inside out, shake it around and then deliver it with well-meaning interest!



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