Want to know what to say when you
don't know what to say? If so, you're in the right place. These
Tongue Fu!® Tips will help you communicate more constructively with
co-workers, clients, supervisors, and suppliers.
What is Tongue Fu!® you ask? It's
best defined by an incident that took place while I was flying to
New York for a media tour. I needed to double-check a quote, so I
pulled out my copy of Tongue Fu!® How to Deflect, Disarm, and Defuse
Any Verbal Conflict from my purse. A woman across the aisle from me
glanced at the title, grabbed the book out of my hands, and
pronounced, "That looks interesting. Tell me what it's about!"
"Well," I answered, tongue planted
firmly in check, "it's about how to handle difficult people without
becoming difficult ourselves." She chuckled, and we had an enjoyable
The following tips are designed to
help you respond proactively to challenging people in the moment,
instead of your having brain freeze and thinking of the perfect
response on the way home.
Tongue Fu!®Tip 1.
When people complain, don't explain; take the AAA
train: Agree, apologize, and act instead of explaining why something
wasn't done. That can sound as if you're making excuses, and it
might make some people angrier. The better way: "You're right, Mrs.
Smith, we were supposed to send that
brochure to you last week, and I'm sorry you didn't receive it yet.
If I could please have your name and address again, I'll personally
put that brochure in an envelope and make sure it goes out today."
Voila! Complaint over.
Tongue Fu!® Tip 2. Has someone
accused you of something you didn't do? Don't defend or deny it.
Instead, put the conversational ball back in their court with, "What
do you mean?" Asking the person to explain herself will cause her to
reveal the real issue, and you can address that instead of reacting
to the attack.
Imagine an upset client exclaims, "You don't care about your
customers." Responding, "That's not true. We pride ourselves on our
quality service" would only create a yes-we-do, no-you-don't debate.
Instead, ask, "What makes you think that?" The client may harrumph,
"I've left three messages and no one's called back." Now you know
what's really bothering him, and you can give him the attention he
wants and deserves.
Tongue Fu!® Tip 3.
Stop blaming-by using a hand gesture. No, not that
one! If people are arguing and you try to talk over them, what
usually happens? They talk louder, and the voice of reason is
drowned out in the commotion. Putting up your hand like a police
officer stopping traffic will make people pause for a moment, which
gives you a chance to get your verbal foot in the door. Then say
these magic words: "We're here to find solutions, not fault." Remind
them that John F. Kennedy said, "Our task is not to fix the blame
for the past; it's to fix the course for the future." If the
conversation starts deteriorating into a gripe session again, make a
T with your hands and call time-out, saying "Calling each other
names won't help. Instead, let's figure out how we can keep this
from happening again."
Tongue Fu!® Tip 4. Are people
swearing at each other? Hold them accountable. Physically (gently)
separate them, tell them they'll each get their turn, and then pull
out paper and pen. Suggest, "Start at the beginning and write what
Now, they have to think back and relate events in chronological
order. That moves them from an emotional frame of mind to an
objective one. They're now reporting instead of ranting and raving,
and they have to slow down to write. Once they slow down, they'll
calm down. Taking notes motivates most people to clean up their
language because they don't want documentation of their temper
tantrum or verbal abuse.
Tongue Fu!® Tip 5.
Fast-forward through frustration with the empathy
phrase. Next time you're feeling irritated with someone, ask how you
would feel if the situation were happening to you. Exasperation can
be a byproduct of seeing things from one point of view: our own.
A trainer once told me, "I used to
get annoyed when I'd go to all the effort to organize a requested
program and employees would gripe about having to attend on their
day off. When I put myself in their shoes, I understood. If I worked
six days a week and had to come in on my only free day, I might be
unhappy, too. That gave me the incentive to be more compassionate."
Tongue Fu!® Tip 6.
When it seems that there's nothing you can do, let
them know you care. A front desk manager at a hotel in Hawaii asked
me, "What can we say when people grumble about the rain? There's
nothing we can do about the weather." I told her, "The words there's
nothing I can do come across as apathetic. Guests will feel you
don't give a darn, and they'll get louder and angrier in an effort
to make you give a darn.
"Use the words I wish, I hope, or
there is something to let them know you're doing your best to help.
Say, 'I wish I could bring out the sunshine for you. I know you were
looking forward to some beach time' or 'I hope it clears up soon. In
case it doesn't, here's a list of rainy-day activities so you can
make the most of your visit even if the sun doesn't cooperate. "We
can't always give people what they want. But we can at least give
them our concern.
Tongue Fu!® Tip 7.
Has someone made a mistake? Be a coach, not a critic.
If something's gone wrong and we tell workers what they should've
done, they'll resent us-even when we're right. A seminar participant
clarified: "They'll resent us, especially if we're right." Why?
People can't undo the past. If they're being criticized for
something they can't change, they'll channel their discomfort into
My favorite boss used to tell me, "We
can't motivate people to do better by making them feel bad. "Telling
people what they should've done makes them feel bad and doesn't show
them how to do better. From now on when people make a mistake, coach
their behavior with the words next time or in the future. Now,
you're shaping their performance instead of shaming it, and they're
learning instead of losing face.
Tongue Fu!® Tip 8.
Develop a repertoire of Fun Fu! remarks. Erma Bombeck
(bless her soul) said, "If we can laugh at it, we can live with it."
Are you sensitive about something? Perhaps you're losing your hair
or you've put on a few pounds. You have a choice: You can continue
to give people the power to push your buttons, or you can come up
with clever, non-combative comebacks and keep your wit and wits
Want an example? I ran into a very
tall man in an airport. The people in front of me were laughing and
pointing at him. I thought, how rude! until he got closer and I saw
his T-shirt. It read: "No, I'm not a basketball player!" On the back
of his shirt were the words, "Are you a jockey?" He told me he used
to dread going out of the house because everyone made smart-aleck
remarks. He finally decided if he couldn't beat 'em, he might as
well join 'em.
The tall man said, "I have a drawer
full of these shirts at home. My favorite says, 'I'm 6'13 and the
weather up here is fine.' Ever since I started wearing these shirts,
I've had fun with my height instead of being frustrated by it." I'd
call him a Fun Fu! black belt.
Tongue Fu!® Tip 9.
Involved in a disagreement? Get off your
"but." Linguist William Safire was once asked, "Is sloppy
communication due to ignorance or apathy?" Safire answered with a
twinkle in his eye, "I don't know and I don't care." I think we care
about how we communicate. What we may not know is that many of us
use a relationship-destroying word that sets us up as adversaries
and perpetuates conflict. That word is but. How do you feel when
someone says, "I hear what you're saying, but we tried that before;
it didn't work"?
Now, imagine if that person replaced
that destructive word but with the constructive word and: "I hear
what you're saying, and we tried that before and it didn't work out.
Do you have any suggestions on how we could handle it differently
this time?" Do you hear how the word and lets people know you're
listening? It moves conversations forward instead of anchoring them
in a right-or-wrong dispute.
Tongue Fu!® Tip 10. Turn nos
into yes. Imagine a staff member asks, "Can I have my paycheck
early? I'm going to Las Vegas this weekend," and you answer, "Sorry,
you can't because it hasn't been approved by payroll." That's the
truth; however, the employee may get upset because you're rejecting
his request. The words can't because are like a verbal door slamming
in his face.
Want good news? You can often approve
requests with the words, Sure, as soon as, or yes, right after.
Reword your reply to, "Sure you can have your paycheck, as soon as
it's approved by payroll. Why don't we give them a call, explain the
circumstances, and see if there's any way they can speed things up."
One manager said, "I can't wait to
use this idea at home. My kids see me as a big meanie because
they're constantly asking for permission and I'm always telling them
no. Next time they ask if they can go outside and play with their
friends, instead of telling them, "No you can't because you haven't
finished your homework," I'm going to say, "Sure you can, right
after you finish your homework." Instead of seeing me as the one
who's keeping them from what they want, this makes them responsible
for getting what they want. It changes the whole dynamic of our
Bravo! That's the purpose of these
Tongue Fu!® Tips. Our goal is to create a diplomatic group dynamic
in which everyone has an incentive to get along. Are you thinking, I
can see that these would work, but (oops) and I'm afraid I'll go
back to the office all fired up and, two weeks later, everything
will be back to the same old, same old? That's why it's important to
post these tips on your computer, office bulletin board, or
refrigerator. You've heard the phrase, Out of sight, out of mind?
Keep these ideas in sight and in mind so you'll see them throughout
the day and be reminded to use them. Everyone at work, including
you, will benefit.
Sam Horn, creator of the trademarked Tongue Fu!® concept shares
these communication techniques at conventions and with corporations
around the United States. For information on Tongue Fu!® Training in
Please call Cheri at 805-528-4351, or
email her at