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How to Backtrack When You’ve Put Your Foot in Your Mouth

Updated on August 26, 2021Lifestyle

Effective communication is a cornerstone of all relationships, whether between coworkers, family members, partners, or friends. But we all have “off” days when we’re not as eloquent, not as considerate, or not as mindful about what we say—and how it might affect the other person. 

A study by the University of Melbourne found that, ironically, those who are more awake and alert during a conversation respond automatically with details that they’d otherwise conceal, and later regret what they say. Relaxed individuals, on the other hand, were inclined to think through their responses before speaking.

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Some high-stakes situations, such as a job interview, require alertness while also avoiding abrupt (and embarrassing) comments that you’ll immediately regret. Here are some foot-in-your-mouth scenarios where this mishap might surface and advice for how to walk your comments back in a tactful way.

1 Accidentally sending a text about someone, to that someone

There might be a situation where someone says something that upsets or hurts you, and you snap back by venting to a trusted friend. Instead of that gripe reaching your confidant who could talk you down from your heightened emotions, you’ve accidentally sent your explicit message directly to the person you’re talking about.

For example, let’s say you attended a family gathering over the weekend and an aunt criticized your appearance. Afterward, you might be texting a cousin to vent about the harrowing experience, but accidentally sent your frustrated message directly to your aunt. 

How to backtrack: Avoid further awkwardness—or worse, being left at “read.” Acknowledge the misdirected text message, and follow up with a fact.

What to say: “Sorry, that message was meant for someone else. I’ve been thinking a lot about our conversation last weekend, and realized that it bothered me.”

>>Read More: Responding to Awkward Texting Scenarios: A Primer

2 Forgetting about a friend’s difficult situation and bringing it up

With so much going on in your own life, it can be challenging to remember updates from acquaintances who you don’t encounter often. This might come up when you bump into an old friend from college, for instance. You might ask how their spouse is doing only to be reminded that they went through a difficult divorce last year.

Sometimes you might not have known about a situation that’s taken a turn. You might be catching up with a friend, and ask about how they’re liking their dream job after a few months in the role, only for them to reveal that they got laid off the day before.

How to backtrack: If you forgot, briefly apologize. And consider offering them support without judgment during their difficult situation.  

What to say: 

“That’s right; I’m sorry, I forgot. How are you coping these days?”

“I’m sorry this happened to you. Do you want to talk about it?”

3 Sharing true feelings about your ex-boss at a job interview

During a job interview, it’s not uncommon to get asked why you chose to leave your previous employer. Employees leave a company for a variety of reasons—like looking for more challenging work, a career change, wanting a job with more growth, or not getting along with their manager. 

If you’ve divulged your uncensored feelings about your ex-boss at a job interview, it might feel hard to bounce back from that scenario. As a job interview is one of a company’s first impressions of you, redacting your comments might feel hopeless.

How to backtrack: Refocus your comments on what you learned from the experience and can bring to your new team.

What to say: “My biggest takeaway from that experience is the importance of clear communication and open-mindedness. Today, if I encounter a disconnect or communication breakdown, I reach out immediately to get clarification. For example  . . .”

4 Making a judgmental comment that applies to someone in a group conversation

You might be at a professional networking event or casual gathering among friends and acquaintances and catch yourself in a group conversation. In these socially ambiguous settings, you might inadvertently offend someone or say something that others find inappropriate.

Let’s say you make a judgmental comment about how thirty-year-olds who still live with their parents are unmotivated and lack ambition. Someone in the group might be in this situation and point out that they take offense to your opinion.

How to backtrack: Apologize, and don’t make excuses for your remarks.

What to say: “What I said was unfair; I’m sorry.”

Making amends after you’ve put your foot in your mouth will always involve some level of discomfort on your part. To help you and the other party move forward on good terms, remember that acknowledgment and humility go a long way.

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