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How to Backpedal After Saying the Wrong Thing

When words come out of your mouth that you instantly regret, here are some ways to recover from your faux pas and minimize the impact of ill-chosen words.

The stress and fatigue of conflict can easily lead to trigger stacking, which in turn can lead to saying the wrong thing during an argument. This is true whether we’re in the argument ourselves or outside of it, trying to help others sort things out.

If your mouth sometimes runs ahead before your brain has a chance to catch up, like mine does when I’m Bad Tammy, it’s useful to backpedal immediately.

When you’ve said something mean

When anger steals your usual good judgment and composure, and you’ve lashed out by saying something mean, issue a mea culpa promptly and concisely:

  1. Apologize. Keep it sincere and brief, since dragging it out can actually make matters worse. It’ll show you’re self-aware enough to notice your mistake.
  2. Acknowledge that it was uncalled for. I call this the “olive branch step.” It’s what is known as a “repair bid,” a gesture requesting their forbearance while you attempt to set something right.
  3. Explain. Again, keep this brief. Just say what prompted your lapse in judgment — but be sure not to blame them for it. Only you control your own tongue.

When you’ve said something mean your mea culpa might sound something like…

I’m sorry, that was unfair. That was my anger speaking.

Or…

  • I’m sorry, that was a terrible thing to say, especially since I don’t even mean it. My anger got the best of me.
  • I’m sorry. That was just plain mean of me. I let my anger control my tongue.

When you’ve put your foot in your mouth

When you’ve said something without thinking (like the time I cursed at a mediation client) and it comes out shocking, ungraceful, or socially awkward, the same approach outlined above works well.

I also find humor very useful for mitigating the impact of my mindlessness.

Self-deprecating humor demonstrates your self-awareness and helps rebalance the social scales (it may help you manage anger better, too).

Link to the humor and anger research

When you’ve put your foot in your mouth your mea culpa might sound something like…

  • Boy, that sounded a lot better in my head than when it came out of my mouth. Let me try to put it the way I really intended…
  • Emily Post is rolling over in her grave right now. As she should be. Let me see if I can put two words together a bit better.
  • Yikes! If I were standing outside myself I’d slap me right now.
  • Gee whiz — and I talk with people for a living! Let me try that again.
  • A good fishing rod would be helpful right now! (Make the motion and sound of reeling in a fish.) What I was really trying to say was…
                        author

Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at https://tammylenski.com/archives/… MORE >

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