What do you do when you put your foot in your mouth?

“Billy, tell your grandfather that he is welcome to sit on the bench with the team so he doesn’t have to stand.” This sentence seems to be quite innocent; in fact, it should be viewed as considerate. That is until you hear Billy’s reply, “That’s my father – NOT my grandfather.” Insert foot into mouth. It happens to all of us on occasion. In this particular case, my dad was a little league coach, and Billy was a new player on the team. It happens, yet people tend to freak out when it does. They get embarrassed, they do not know what to say, and they avoid the person in the future. There is a laundry list of negative reactions that always seem to follow.

Let’s stop for a second. Remember that we are all human and that everyone makes mistakes. There’s no need to beat ourselves up over the “foot in mouth” blunders. But, we definitely should work on minimizing these occurrences, because in Relationship Architecture, interaction infractions can and will erode your business relationships; probably even more than your personal ones. Relationship Architecture is about operating with a strategy in mind. There are two areas you should include in your plan when it comes to these types of blunders: PREVENT & RESCUE.

Methods to Prevent “Hoof in Mouth”:

1) Always be prepared. The very best way to prevent interactional mistakes is to practice, practice, practice. While you are prepping for a meeting, make sure you digest and secure enough personal information about the folks you are speaking with so you will not put yourself in a bad position. If you have things planned to mention, then you will not “fish” for conversation starters. Half of the problem with “foot in mouth” is that you are trying to act like you really know the person (most likely because you should, but have probably only paid half attention to details – oh look –  shiny things), but don’t have the recall of accurate details. Know who you are speaking with through preparation.

A few years back, I asked someone how her mother was, and unfortunately, her mother had passed away. An honest mistake, except that after I said it, I knew instantly that I actually had known her mother had passed;  the person knew too. Afterward, I had the feeling she never looked at me the same way. So, make sure you are comfortable with the facts before opening your mouth. Someone told me a story about asking a woman when she was “due”, and she replied that she wasn’t pregnant. Whoa! How do you get out of that one? That example still makes me tentative about asking women in the early stages of pregnancy how they are feeling.

2) Avoid over-stating or under-stating facts that you are unsure of. In the example of my dad’s experience above, my father obviously had to address the person who was with Billy, but the winning statement would have been to go with calling him “your dad”, because even if he was the grandfather, no offense would have been taken. It’s a compliment. So before you speak, stop and think, compliment; hopefully that will serve you better when you don’t have all the facts. Everyone tries too hard to be correct; if you are uncertain, then either don’t say anything, or if you must, then be sure to error on the side of not insulting the person you are addressing.

3) Just be honest. Often, we are so concerned that the people we are conversing with expect us to know a great deal of information about them, (and yes, it is impressive when we do), that we stretch and pretend that we know more than we actually do. There usually is a land mine lurking in those scenarios. So, as painful as it may seem, you are better off coming clean than taking a chance by pretending. If you are unsure, just politely say that you are unsure, and apologize for forgetting. It’s a much more solid tactic in building relationships than fumbling around with the facts.

If you keep these three points in mind, you will be better positioned for not inserting foot in mouth. However, if it happens, don’t freak out. Try to recover with these three conversation rescuers. Of course, the one you should use depends on the severity of the blunder – the first two are for minor infractions worthy of levity or compliments.

Conversational blunder – life preservers:

1)     Humor. When appropriate, make fun of the situation and primarily of yourself.

2)     Flattery. People like getting their ass kissed and being told how wonderful they are. This can often defuse your blunder, if it is the right setting.

3)     Apologize. If the above two are not appropriate and you just plain out screwed up, then be real and just suck it up and apologize. This actually is the very best solution to any mistake you make.

Hey, we have all done it from time to time. We have all have had “hoof in mouth disease”. The key is to make sure you minimize the occurrences in your conversations and to make sure if you do make a blunder, that you do not let it erode or blow up a relationship. When in doubt, be real; be honest and say, “Sorry Billy, I should have know that was your dad.” Like my dad said before he got this reply, “No worries coach, his gray hair throws everybody off.”

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