Archive for nonverbal

“I SHOULD HAVE SAID…” (Perfect Retorts and Comebacks) by Kathleen Reardon, PhD

Posted in Life Management with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 18, 2011 by Robert Finkelstein

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“I SHOULD HAVE SAID…” (Perfect Retorts and Comebacks) by Kathleen Reardon, PhD

How many times have you been put on the spot in a conversation? Someone at a party makes an insulting comment or your boss speaks down to you? In response, you either say the wrong thing, triggering an argument… or you say nothing and dwell on it the rest of the day. Then suddenly it comes to you — I should have said… But of course, it’s too late to utter the perfect response.

I’ve spent two decades researching and consulting on how to communicate in difficult situations. One of the most useful tools is a repertoire of comeback techniques that allows you to better handle confrontation, take control of how people treat you and make you feel more in charge of what happens to you in relationships and at work.

When a conversation grows tense or takes a bad turn, we often get overwhelmed by feelings and tend to fall into poor communication habits. We typically get defensive or lash out. We can do better, but keep in mind that effective comebacks are not just snarky one-liners meant to put someone in his/her place. They are strategic ways to help you keep your cool… elicit reciprocal civility from the person who went too far… and let you achieve your goals without being derailed by a poorly considered response. My secrets


I use these to de-escalate tension in everyday conversations with family members, friends and colleagues…

Reframe the meaning of what the other person says. How we choose to define what goes on in a conversation greatly affects how it goes. The next time a person describes you or your actions negatively, revise what he said in a way that enables a more positive or favorable view to emerge. Example: You make a proposal to your boss, and he says, “That’s one of the stupidest ideas I ever heard.” You could accept his interpretation and rebuke him for his insensitive comment — “It’s smarter than anything you’ve come up with” — but that risks hurting your ­relationship and your career.

Reinterpret the meaning of what he said. It wasn’t that your idea was so bad — just that you communicated it inadequately. Say, “A lot of new, very good ideas seem stupid at first, so I’m not surprised at your reaction. Just hear me out, and we’ll see.”

Rephrase the other person’s words to make them more accurate. Communication happens so fast that people just say what pops into their heads with little consideration. They often make poor word choices that stoke conflict. Example: You are discussing a problem with your spouse, and she blurts out, “You are so stubborn.” Instead of getting angry, you could say, “You’re right. I am persistent. That’s one of the reasons you married me. So let’s try to figure out this problem together.” Stubborn and persistent describe similar characteristics, but persistence is a much more admirable quality.

If you received the same criticism in an office environment, you might reply, “You got me there. I’m tenacious when an issue is as important as this”… or “I’d say all of us here are determined and headstrong because we want the best possible outcome.”

Use nonverbal gestures when people make thoughtless remarks. It gives them the opportunity to reflect on their errors or misjudgments. Example: Your spouse comes home and says, “Why is the kitchen such a pigsty?” You could reply that you’ve spent all day cooking for his relatives, but that comeback, while momentarily satisfying, will just produce a defensive response on his part (“I didn’t ask you to cook them such a fancy meal”).

Instead, respond to the initial insult with a gesture that suggests confusion or curiosity rather than anger and ­indignation. Hold eye contact with him, and shake your head a bit as if hurt and puzzled. By pausing and not replying verbally to the initial insult, it creates a void in which your spouse has to confront how petty and unreasonable his words just were.

Ask for clarification. Many times we are too quick to infer negative intentions before determining if any were intended, especially if we’ve had tension with a person in the past. Example: You’re about to go out, and your spouse says, “You’re wearing a short-sleeved shirt?” You could assume that she’s being critical or controlling and respond with irritation. However, she may be coming from a more loving place. She doesn’t want you to be uncomfortable if everyone else is dressed more formally. My preferred comeback technique: Mention your tendency to leap to judgments, then ask for more information. Say, “I get so defensive when I hear comments like that. What did you mean by it?”


These are for when an argument is getting out of control or you are dealing with a particularly insensitive clod or a real bully…

Answer sarcastic questions as if they were factual inquiries or observations. Sometimes people are looking to bicker or egg you on. If that’s the case, it’s not worth the effort of trying to turn a negative situation into a positive one. Ignore their insults, avoid reacting to their implied criticisms and redirect the conversation toward a quick end. Example: A person says, “Don’t tell me you’re still here?”… You say, “Okay, I won’t tell you that.” Smile slightly when you respond so that you let the person know that you caught his sarcastic drift but chose to ignore it.

Tell the other person, “We’ve gotten into an URP.” This unusual comeback works best when you are stuck in an accelerating argument or standoff in which neither of you can see the way out. Using the word “URP” is so silly and unexpected that it acts like a circuit breaker. The other person becomes too curious about it to keep fighting.

You can then explain to him, “A URP is an unwanted repetitive episode. I was reading about the patterns people tend to fall into when they argue.” Suddenly, instead of being stuck in a frustrating argument, you have turned your attention to how you argue and the topic of effective comebacks. This allows both of you to get some emotional distance from the immediate fight and see the bigger picture.

On rare occasions, you want a great comeback that stings the other person. This usually is reserved for when someone is grilling you relentlessly or demeaning you in public. In this case, you need to set the person straight. The idea isn’t to issue a ­counterinsult that is even meaner or more derogatory, which may lead to an argument, but to make a bold, edgy comment that lets the other person know he has crossed a line. Example: You are at a dinner party, and the person next to you says loud enough for all to hear, “How much money do you make?” Or “Have you had much work done on your face?”

My favorite comebacks…

“Since we’re obviously saying whatever crosses our minds tonight, I’d like to say how much I hate this topic.”

“I’m going to let what you just said season a bit before responding.”

For more general taunts, try these comebacks…

“You’re funny sometimes. Just not this time.”

“Fortunately for you, I’m speechless.”

– Kathleen Reardon
Bottom Line/Personal interviewed Kathleen Reardon, PhD, professor of management and organization at University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, Los Angeles. She is coauthor, with Christopher Noblet, of Comebacks At Work: Using Conversation to Master Confrontation (HarperBusiness).

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