Would you like to know what to say—when you don't know what to say? If so, you're in luck, because this article explains how you can think on your feet and communicate more constructively with colleagues, customers, even kids.
Top Seven Tongue Fu!® Tips
What is Tongue Fu!®, you ask? It is best defined by an incident that happened while I was flying to New York for a media tour. I needed to double-check a quote, so I pulled out my copy of Tongue Fu!® from my purse. A woman across the aisle from me glanced at the title, grabbed the book out of my hands and pronounced, "That looks interesting. Tell me what it's about!"
"Well," I answered, tongue planted firmly in cheek, "It's about how to handle difficult individuals—without becoming one ourselves." She chuckled, and we went on to have an enjoyable conversation.
These tips are designed to help you respond proactively to challenging individuals in the moment, instead of having brain freeze and thinking of the perfect response. . . on the way home. Read 'em and reap.
Tongue Fu!® Tip #1: When people complain, don't explain.
Take the AAA Train. Explaining why something wasn't done when it was supposed to be done makes people angrier because they feel we're making excuses. Instead, Agree, Apologize and Act. "You're right, Mrs. Smith, we were supposed to send that brochure to you last week, and I'm sorry you didn't receive it yet. If I could please have your name and address again, I'll personally put that brochure in an envelope and make sure it goes out today." Voila. Complaint over!
Tongue Fu!® Tip #2: When someone accuses you of something you didn't do.
Don't defend or deny it. For example, if someone blindsides you with the unfair allegation, "You women are so emotional!" and you protest with, "We're not emotional!" you've just proven their point. Instead, put the conversational ball back in their court with, "What do you mean?" Asking them to explain themselves will cause them to reveal the real issue, and you can address that instead of reacting to their attack. Suppose an upset client claims, "You don't care about your customers." A hurtful denial of, "That's not true. We pride ourselves on our quality service," would only serve to turn the exchange into a "Yes we do. No you don't" debate. Instead ask, "What makes you think that?" The client may harrumph, "I've left three messages and no one's called back." Aaahh, now you know what's really bothering her and you can give her the attention she wants and deserves.
Tongue Fu!® Tip #3: Stop disagreements with a hand gesture.
No, not that one! If people are arguing and you try to talk over them, what will happen? They'll talk louder and the voice of reason will get drowned out in the commotion. Putting your hand up like a policeman will cause them to pause for just a moment, which gives you a chance to get your verbal foot in the door. Then say these magic words: "We're here to find solutions, not fault." Remind them that John F. Kennedy said, "Our task is not to fix the blame for the past, it's to fix the course for the future." If the conversation starts deteriorating into a gripe session again, make a T with your hands and call out, "Time out. Calling each other names won't help. Instead, let's focus on how we can keep this from happening again."
Tongue Fu!® Tip #4: Have to give bad news?
Don't use the apathetic words, "There's nothing I can do." A front desk manager at a hotel in Hawaii asked, "What can we say when people grumble about the rain? There's nothing we can do about the weather. We're not Mother Nature." I told her that the words, "There's nothing I can do," come across as a verbal dead-end. People feel you're brushing them off, and tend to get more vehement in an effort to make you care. Instead, use the words, "I wish," "I hope," or "There is something" to let them know you are at least trying to help them. Say, "I wish I could bring out the sunshine for you. I know you were looking forward to some beach time," or "I hope it clears up soon. In case it doesn't, there's something I can suggest. Here's a list of rainy-day activities so at least you can make the most of your visit even if the sun doesn't cooperate." In the real world, we can't always give people what they want. We can at least give them our concern and viable options.
Tongue Fu!® Tip #5: Has someone made a mistake?
If something's gone wrong and we tell people what they should have done, they will resent us, even if what we're saying is right. Why? People can't undo the past. If they are being reprimanded for something they can't change, they'll channel their feeling of helplessness or guilt into antagonism towards us. My mom used to tell me, "We can't motivate people to do better by making them feel bad." Telling people what they "should" have done makes them feel bad and doesn't teach them how to do it better. From now on when people make a mistake, use the words "next time" or "in the future" instead of criticizing what happened with the word "should." Now, you are shaping their behavior instead of shaming it, and they are learning instead of losing face.
Tongue Fu!® Tip #6: Develop a repertoire of fun remarks.
Erma Bombeck (bless her soul) said, "If we can laugh at it, we can live with it." Are you sensitive about something? Perhaps you've put on a few pounds. You have a choice. You can be hyper-sensitive about this and give people the power to embarrass you, or you can come up with clever, non-combative comebacks and keep your wit(s) about you. Want an example? I ran into a very tall man in an airport. The people in front of me were laughing and pointing at him. I thought, "How rude!" until he got closer and I saw his t-shirt which said, "No, I'm not a basketball player!" The back of his shirt said, "Are you a jockey?" This man told me he used to dread going out of the house because everyone made smart-aleck remarks. He finally decided if he couldn't beat 'em, he might as well join 'em. "This is nothing," he said with a smile, "I have a drawer full of these shirts at home. My favorite says 'I'm 6'13" and the weather up here's fine.' Ever since I started wearing these shirts," he added, "I've had fun with my height instead of being frustrated by my height." Coming up with just the right remarks can help you lighten up instead of tighten up.
Tongue Fu!® Tip #7: Turn "can't, because" into "sure, as soon as."
Imagine a staff member asks, "Can I have my paycheck early? I'm going to Las Vegas this weekend." And you answer, "No you can't have your paycheck because it hasn't been approved by payroll." That's the truth. However, it's a tactless way of rejecting a request. The words "can't, because" are like a verbal door slamming in the person's face. Want good news? You can often approve requests with the words, "Sure, as soon as" or "Yes, right after." Re-word your reply to, "Sure you can have your paycheck, as soon as it's approved by payroll. Why don't we give them a call, explain the circumstances and see if there's any way they can speed things up." One manager said, "I can't wait to use this idea at home. My kids see me as a 'big meanie' because they're constantly asking for permission and I'm always telling them 'no.' Next time they ask if they can go outside and play with their friends, instead of telling them, 'No you can't, because you haven't done your homework,' I'm going to say, 'Sure you can, right after you finish your homework.' Instead of seeing me as the one who's keeping them from what they want, this makes them responsible for getting what they want. It changes the whole dynamic of our relationship."
Bravo. That's the purpose of these Tongue Fu!® tips. We can keep people from becoming difficult in the first place—or at least not add fuel to their verbal fire—by using responses that help instead of hurt. By communicating diplomatically, people have more incentive to respond in kind.
About the Author
Sam Horn is a business and career strategist and top-rated presenter who helps organizations and entrepreneurs develop one-of-a-kind approaches and positioning so they break out vs. blend in. She is the author of five books, including POP! Stand Out in Any Crowd, and Tongue Fu®, which has been characterized by readers as "martial arts for the mouth." Contact Sam Horn through her website: www.samhorn.com