One Surprising Way to Keep Your Foot out of Your Mouth

Foot in Mouth

Have you ever found yourself saying exactly what you didn’t want to say…again? It happens to me. Before I know it, the words are out of my mouth, like a slippery eel, and the conversation ends up taking a predictable pattern, with predictable results. Here’s one interesting method you can use to keep your foot out of your mouth and create conversations that get the results you really want.

A theme this month among clients has been the frustrating inability to stay in their Learner/Researchers when those around them are in their Knower/Judgers. They are frustrated with having patterned conversations—those we’ve had before, with predictable exchanges and predictable outcomes. We want to change these conversations, but somehow we participate in them as if we’re reading from a script. We use the same logic and facial expressions and words that continually get us in trouble. Then we walk away mumbling “How’d that happen again?”

Those of you who’ve been through one of my Clarity Summits or workshops have probably heard my tale of my K/J reaction to unmet expectations. For nearly 50 years, it’s been a loud, exasperated “Goddamn!” So when my wife, daughter, or employee started a conversation from the K/J, I’d respond from mine and bellow “Goddamn!” I was on autopilot. Then, of course, a K/J retort would come back and we were off and running, having a patterned conversation.

As you may have read in the previous article, this was an addiction for me. I was meeting a psychological need to vent frustration that made me feel good and the other person feel like crap. This was not doing my career or my family life any good, so I vowed to stop.

Easier said than done. And my clients are telling me the same thing. Their patterns consist of:

  • Winning arguments
  • Pointing out others’ errors
  • Engaging with teenage daughters (oh, that one hits home)
  • Finding ways to punish subordinates rather than researching the processes that supported the error

This is a pretty good laundry list of interactions that do not ultimately elevate your personal influence over a situation. Instead, they lead to a head-butting K/J-versus-K/J rant that accomplishes little.

So how can we learn to zip it before it slips out?

First, recognize that what you’re doing is a habit—an addiction—and you’ve been doing it a long time. Sometimes we’re even observant enough to realize we just did it, but not observant enough to know we’re about to do it. That’s where this trick can help.

Stop the go-nowhere conversations

Pick the one self-destructive interpersonal addiction or habit you want to alter, and start taking notes. Write the habit down on a piece of paper and keep it in your pocket. At first, note every time the conversation goes as it always goes, and write down what happened, including who said what if you can remember.

As you record these adventures, a couple of things will start to happen. You’ll become more aware of how often you engage in your conversational habit. And hopefully this will raise your desire to eliminate this habit from your conversational repertoire.

Soon you’ll be able to see when this exchange is about to happen. Remember the Viktor Frankl quote “Between stimulus and response there is a space”? This is that space. When you finally observe that space, you have a choice. Do what you’ve always done (and get what you’ve always gotten). Or change the dynamics by changing you.

Here’s a hint. Don’t try more than one habit at a time. Whether you want to stop furrowing your brow when you’re discussing the kids with their mom or put an end to pointing your finger at direct reports who deliver bad news, pick the most important one and start journaling. Then decide to change. That’s all it takes to create a new conversation.

Me? I’m doing pretty well with this. But I’m not totally there yet. Sometimes, when faced with some unmet expectation, I let slip a “Gah…” Then I catch myself, get into my L/R, and take the conversation somewhere else.

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