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Face to Face: Communication in Sticky Situations

By Susan RoAne, The Mingling Maven®

In most aspects of our life, we’re confronted with various face to face situations that confound and confuse us. How we deal with the variety of people who have different interests, opinions, styles of communication and value systems than we do reflects on us. In this article based on my forthcoming book, FACE TO FACE: How To Reclaim the Personal Touch in a Digital World, I highlight some of these baffling moments of misery, the cornucopias of confusion, and offer possible solutions.

Agree To Disagree

Not everyone we work with or play bridge or soccer with is going to hold the same opinions as we do. More likely, many people we meet will be of different opinions and beliefs. It can be uncomfortable if we’re in a face to face conversation and find we’re talking to our polar opposite about war, political candidates, health care or even a favorite actor, team, restaurant or model of car. When it’s apparent that no one is changing his or her mind, move the conversation to another more neutral topic. The solution: simply agree to disagree and find another shared topic of interest. “It looks like we have different and strong views and neither of us is going to change, so . . . “How ’bout dem Bears?” Said with humor, that comment pokes fun at fallback talking points, and the segue has been made.

The One Uppers And The Put Downers

One sticky situation made it clear to me that I ought to solicit others’ ideas, strategies and opinions. It’s how to handle the person who is the putdown artist or the critic who manages to make the barbed comment . . . in front of others.
One effective way I learned to respond to hurtful and/or pointed comments is to simply look at the person and quietly say, “Ouch!” It’s a word that unmistakably implies a transgression and it’s an unmistakable “I” message. Too often we let people get away with demeaning comments, rather than deal with them immediately, face to face. My team – Jeff Munks, Brad Oberwager and a New York based editor friend – has different methods of dealing with the One Uppers and Put Downers, who not only cross our paths but also cross us.

To the One Upper, Jeff, Former Deputy Executive Learning Officer for the Navy, will respond, “Wow, that’s fascinating,” and then politely move on. The Put Downer is told, “Gee, I’m sorry you feel that way,” and then Jeff exits. Jeff prefers being in an environment where people are engaged in making others feel good. “Hanging around people who don’t share that value is something I won’t do.”

Brad Oberwager, CEO of Sundia Corporation, and a successful serial entrepreneur, offered a different viewpoint. According to Brad, it’s a matter of uneven power/socioeconomic situations. “If I’m in the stronger position and someone says something negative, I call them on it right away, ‘That was an unpleasant comment,’ or ‘Was it your intention to hurt me?’ The direct approach is wickedly effective.”

What if Brad is not in the stronger position? “I smile, look them in the eyes and say, ‘Fortunately my confidence is high enough that I don’t need to respond to your comment.’ The underlying insult is that they have a lack of confidence and that they need to put me down. When an offensive comment is made in a situation where we’re equals, I’m very direct, ‘That sounded like a nasty comment; maybe I didn’t understand what you meant.’ Often I turn my back on the person and walk away.” Having a response in mind for these situations prevents us from being caught off guard and rendered speechless. If we’re walking on eggshells around someone who consistently one ups or puts down, not being around them is a good option.

My New York based editor friend, is a great “Southern gentleman,” who usually stays out of conflict. “If the offensive comment is in a work situation, I don’t say much in response, and I let my work speak for itself. If someone makes an offensive remark in my personal life, I’ll usually challenge that person or say something that expresses my shock or that I’m offended.”

There is a caveat to our handling of these conversation killers, a truism left over from my teaching days. The instigator doesn’t get caught, but the retaliator does. Remember those moments? “But, teacher, Johnny hit me first,” spoken after the teacher catches Billy returning the punch at Johnny. The same dynamics can apply to the verbal retaliator, especially if people didn’t hear the instigator’s comments. We should be sure to assess each situation before we decide how to respond or react.

Silent Approval

The dilemma: are we silent or do we address the offending remarks? If we’re silent, do we give tacit approval to the offender? Yes. When we call people on their stuff, we set boundaries. That’s another lesson to be learned from teachers. When you have standards of acceptable behavior, the rules, the students know the parameters. No question that they test those rules, but they know which are the bad behaviors and, more importantly, their consequences. My last year of teaching I whittled my rules down to one rule: The Golden Rule. It may have taken a month or so, but my five different classes of students knew HOW they had to behave and what would happen if they didn’t. Frankly, it isn’t as easy to rein in adults. We can’t send them to the principal’s office, although there have been times I wished I could do just that. But, kids and adults who push boundaries try to get away with as much as we will let them.

Hot Top Tip:

Don’t be caught off guard. Have a prepared response, comment or look, in the event someone makes an offensive statement or putdown.

The Tease

In our personal lives, we want to handle the teasers differently. There’s a point at which teasing or kidding around becomes tormenting or bullying. According to Dr. Hara Estroff Marano (Psychology Today, March/April 2006, p. 51), we need to “determine if the kidding taps a reservoir of nastiness and if the perpetrator teases in other contexts.” If so, banter right along, but when the propitious moment presents itself, mention your reaction to the comments and how the remarks make you feel.

  1. “I am really uncomfortable.”
  2. “I find zingers to be….”
  3. “I would prefer if….” or
  4. “What was that about?”

Dr. Geraldine Alpert, a Marin County, California, psychologist, advises NOT to smile as we make our statements. The smile sends a mixed message to the person who already has demonstrated a lack of awareness or indifference. Not smiling makes your message crystal clear.

Our encounters with others in the face to face space can be sources of inspiration or perspiration. The sweat drops from our brows as we consider how to handle these sticky, and oft-complicated, situations. Life is full of human encounters that make us think, as well as squirm. But we shouldn’t avoid face to face situations just because of the five percent that may give us pause for thought.

Have a few stock comments in place so you aren’t caught off guard and you’re prepared with something to say. Remember: today’s sticky situation and annoyance is tomorrow’s great story to share. As the ancient Talmud saying goes, “Humor is tragedy plus time.” In time, the punch line appears and we get a story to add to our collection and our conversations.

RoAne’s Reminders

  • Have several generic remarks in your conversational quiver so that you aren’t caught off guard.
  • Use “I” messages. “I’m surprised, disappointed, perplexed that you…”
  • For the consistent One Upper, bring his/her behavior to his/her attention. “I had no idea our vacations (cars, computers, bonuses, sales purchases) were a contest.”
  • To set boundaries and let people know they’ve transgressed, by not smiling when delivering your comment.
  • Saying nothing is only silent approval when also nothing is done.
  • “Old school” doesn’t permit bad words about good people.

From FACE TO FACE: How To Reclaim the Personal Touch In a Digital World  Touchstone/Fireside


©2012SusanRoAne Reprint only with the permission of author

Susan RoAne, an in-demand keynote speaker, is the author of How To Work A Room, What Do I Say Next? and How To Create Your Own Luck. She is the person who created the tipping point on the term, SCHMOOZE and is The Mingling Maven® who teaches people how to make small talk that yields big rewards. You can find her at 415 461 3915 or