“I Wish I Hadn’t Said That”

Three steps to avoiding that feeling.

Posted Nov 20, 2020

Barry Langdon-Lassagne, Wikimedia, CC 3.0
Source: Barry Langdon-Lassagne, Wikimedia, CC 3.0

Most of us have said things we wish we could take back. But for some people, that's a frequent occurrence. The following has helped my clients:

1. Buy time. Take one deep breath. Because the brain fires millions of times a second, just those few seconds may buy you enough time to more wisely decide what (if anything) to say. Also, a deep breath lowers your heart rate and blood pressure, thus increasing your ability to decide calmly.

2. (Optional) Analyze the risk-reward of silence, confrontation, or a face-saving response.  Often the issue is simple enough that analysis isn’t required—just those few seconds to slow down will often enable you to make a good decision.

But sometimes, you need time to analyze the situation. For example, today, a client was kicking himself for having instantly lashed out when told he was being replaced on a board of directors. He and I took a few minutes to analyze the situation and concluded that even though on the merits, my client was probably correct that the company would be better with him on the board, the chance of reversing the decision was small, his protesting would hurt his reputation among the other board members, who were important to his career, and the benefit of being on that board was small and even inhered liability: the time required. Not being on the board would free him to do more beneficial activities. My client’s protest was driven in part, yes, by his belief that his removal was a mistake, but more driven by the ego-hit of having been dumped. After our few minutes of analysis, he concluded that instead of instantly arguing with the person, he wished he had taken that deep breath and said he needed to get off the Zoom call for a couple of minutes. That would have resulted in his deciding to graciously accept his removal.

3. (Optional) Word it properly. If you decide to say something that could generate a negative reaction, it’s worth taking time to craft the wording. Of course, every situation is different, but in general, it’s wise to avoid hitting the person between the eyes and to instead make the point in a face-saving way. In this case, it might have been, “I can understand why you’d think Mary would be a better board member. After all, (insert a reason or two.) On the other hand, I like to think I bring more important benefits to the board (insert them). But what do you think?”

It’s difficult to come up with such tactful yet potentially influencing language on the fly. That’s another reason to buy some time before deciding if and how to respond, perhaps with just that one deep breath or perhaps by excusing yourself for a minute or even, “Hey, would you mind if I get back to you tomorrow?”

As with most how-to advice, it’s easier to dispense than to implement. That’s especially true here because emotion is involved. And if a person tends to go from zero to 60 in a millisecond, replacing a visceral reaction (what psychologist Daniel Kahneman might call a System 1 response) with a reflective System 2 response requires, like most new habits, time, patience, and forgiving yourself for setbacks. It's usually two steps forward, one step back, but progress is likely. Don’t give up. This is the sort of problem that can be cured or at least ameliorated.

I read this aloud on YouTube.