disappointed man

Oh, uh, I didn’t mean to… well, what I meant was, um, well, uh… that didn’t come out right. What I’m trying to say is, uh…

Sound familiar? We’ve all been there—those panicky moments when your stomach jumps into your throat because you let a few wrong words fly out of your mouth before you even had a chance to think about exactly what you were saying. Now you’re stuck trying to backpedal and retract that foolish statement without causing even more damage. And, that’s not always easy.

After all, when you’re doing your best to patch up a conversational faux pas, you’d rather not draw more attention to it with your incessant explanations. So, where’s the line here? What can you do to successfully see your way out of a cringe-worthy situation, without proceeding to make things even worse? Whether it’s in a job interview, a meeting, or even in your personal life, here’s what you need to know to get out of this situation with grace.

1. Determine if It’s Necessary

I hate to sound brutal, but nobody pays attention to what you’re saying as much as you do. So, before launching right in with your attempts to smooth things over, take just a second to determine if what you said was truly that detrimental to the conversation.

Of course, you don’t want to spend minutes sitting there with your mouth hanging open while crickets chirp. But, analyzing the situation doesn’t need to take tons of time. You just need to pay close attention to how people responded. Has the room fallen silent and everybody is simply staring at you with a shocked look on their faces? Or, has everyone already moved past it, and the conversation is carrying on as normal?

If it seems like everybody is waiting for you to say something, then you need to chime in with your attempt to right your wrong. But, if nobody seemed to skip a beat at your blunder? Well, intruding with your explanation at this point will only serve to make things worse and draw more attention to your slip-up—a slip-up that nobody likely even took notice of to begin with.

2. Acknowledge It

Here’s the thing about backpedaling—it seems kind of shady, doesn’t it? It can feel like you’re attempting to just save face and explain away your offense without ever actually owning up to it. It’s for this exact reason that the key to successfully talking your way out of a conversational mishap is to be upfront about the fact that you said something you shouldn’t have.

If you’re looking for an incredibly graceful or natural way to do this, you’re going to be disappointed. Instead, you just need to kickoff your retraction with something like, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to say that,” or “I’m sorry, that came out wrong.”

Statements like that take ownership of your mistake right out of the way. And, remember to take note of those two key words: I’m sorry. They’re especially important if you accidentally said something that could be perceived as rude or offensive.

3. Explain Yourself

Now’s the hard part: The point when you should provide some resolution for what you mistakenly let slip. No, this doesn’t mean rambling on with a longwinded explanation of how you didn’t sleep well the night before, you stubbed your toe, and now the sun’s in your eyes. This isn’t about making excuses. Instead of looking at this as your opportunity to cover up your mistake, you need to view it as your chance to right your wrong—in other words, this is when you say what you meant to initially.

What does this look like? Perhaps you were in a team meeting and brashly jumped in with something snarky like, “That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard!” You were immediately met with shocked looks from your team members, and you know you need to follow up your outburst with some explanation. Saying something similar to, “I’m sorry, that came across way ruder than I intended. What I mean is that I’m not confident that suggestion would work, because those methods haven’t been successful for us in the past. Maybe we should try it this way instead.”

This works for a few different reasons. First, you apologized for your surprising and overly aggressive response. Then, you explained your thoughts, providing a little bit of context for your initial reaction. Finally, you followed that all up with a constructive suggestion. Yes, there might still be a few people around that conference room table who feel uneasy due to your sudden outburst. But, your rational and levelheaded retraction should serve to eliminate most of the tension from the room.

4. Move On

Next? It’s simple: you need to drop it and keep moving forward. Continuing to obsess over that stupid thing you said (both internally and aloud) just makes the situation more uncomfortable. And, if you can’t forget about it, how can you expect others to? Remember, your goal was simply to backpedal—not to sit there spinning your wheels for hours on end.

Nobody enjoys those moments when you know you just said something you shouldn’t have. But, unfortunately, they’re inevitable. We all end up in those situations every now and then. Fortunately, your follow-up to that conversational blunder can actually hold more power than what you said to begin with.

Follow these steps the next time you need to backpedal in a conversation, and you’re sure to do it with grace and poise—without running anyone over.

Updated 6/19/2020