What do you say when you don’t know what to say? Someone catches you off guard with a question you don’t know how to answer, an incredible statement, or an insult. You’re stumped, flabbergasted, or angry. The first thing to say in that initial confused, emotional moment is—nothing. Your knee-jerk reaction may well be counterproductive, and sometimes a few seconds of silence is all it takes for the other person to recognize a gaff and correct his course.

But what if those seconds pass, and he says nothing? Always remember that communication is not a game of “the fastest mouth wins.” It’s okay for you to take a longer break if that’s what you need to get your thoughts together. Bridges to Consensus, Chapter 9, explains and illustrates several techniques for taking a break without giving up.

However, you won’t need as many breaks if you know how to craft nonreactive statements or questions—statements and questions that don’t communicate a substantive response. Don’t worry about trying to persuade the other person or lead them to consensus while you are still confused. Instead, try simply paraphrasing what the other person said and ask them if you got it straight.

Suppose you show up a little early for a meeting, and the only other person in the room is Pat, who tends to be a troublemaker and gossip. Pat looks you up and down, then hard in the face, and bluntly asks, “Are you feeling okay?” Whether you say yes or no, Pat could make mischief out of this. (S)he could tell the wrong person you have a medical problem. Or (s)he could tell them you that you looked terrible, she asked about your medical problem, and you denied it, so it must be something bad that you don’t want to admit.

You might pause for a moment, and if you’re still unsure what to say, paraphrase, “You think I don’t look like myself, right?” Or simply invite Pat to restate or elaborate, “I beg your pardon?”

Of course, Pat might very well elaborate on the sentiment that offended you to begin with, the implication that you look unwell. But that’s a good thing. When people elaborate, the additional details they share sometimes inspire you with an appropriate response. In addition, they will often change a question you don’t know how to answer into a statement. A statement is easier to handle. It doesn’t directly call for a response.

Suppose Pat says, “Yeah, there’s something funny about your eyes today.” You can pick up on that detail in a way that doesn’t give Pat anything to gossip about, “I tried a new eye shadow sample I got at the mall this weekend. Won’t be buying that one,” or simply, “That’s interesting,” or even more simply, “Oh.”

Another approach is to ask a specific question that encourages elaboration, such as “Why do you ask?”

Again, suppose that Pat said, “Are you feeling okay?”

You reply, “You think I don’t look like myself, right?”

But Pat simply replies, “Yeah.”

So you try a question, “Why do you ask?”

“There’s something funny about your eyes today.”

“I tried a new eye shadow sample I got at the mall this weekend. Won’t be buying that one.”

Asking open questions and paraphrasing have many other merits and uses, as described in Chapters 10 and 11 of Bridges. If you’re new to this blog, you’ll also find other examples in previous posts.