“If only,” one of the most self-defeating phrases in any language. It often occurs in the company of its cousins, “could have,” “would have” and “should have.”

A person may experience the “if onlys” after completing a negotiation or other consensus-seeking interaction. Later he thinks of an additional provision he could have gotten if only he had thought about it at the time. Or he might come up with a better way he could have phrased something, thereby leaving the other party with a better attitude toward him for the future.

Well, guess what? After any human interaction, we can always think of a way we could have communicated even better. Making perfection your litmus test only sets you up for frustration. Instead, use a more realistic standard of comparison: what would have happened if I had not used my persuasion, consensus building and communication skills?

Let’s say my client Minnie asks a coworker, Mickey, if he’ll cover for her while she takes extra personal time at lunch.

Mickey replies, “No. People are always dumping on me, and I’m sick and tired of it.”

The first words that pop into Minnie’s mind are, “Are you kidding? It took an hour and a half out of my day when I picked you up from the car repair, drove you to work, then, dropped you back at the garage.”

Before blurting those words, Minnie remembers her skills. She pauses to think. Mickey made her wrong by implying that she dumps on him, when, in fact, she recently did him a similar favor to what she just asked from him. Her natural, instinctive, perfectly understandable, but counterproductive, knee-jerk reaction is to turn around and make Mickey even more wrong than he made her. But she has learned that that will only escalate the disagreement.

So, instead, she pulls up another learned skill, an open question, “How would you compare my driving you to and from work last week to your covering my extra lunch time?”

Mickey replies, “Oh, okay, you win. I’ll cover for you.”

Later that evening, Minnie feels dissatisfied because Mickey only agreed to her request grudgingly. If only she had first asked him about his own concerns. She could have said, “How have people been dumping on you lately?” She could have agreed that she wouldn’t like to be dumped on that way either, thereby validating Mickey’s feelings. Then, he would have mellowed before she brought up the favor she did for him. He would not have begrudged her the favor. His attitude toward her would have improved, thus, helping to develop a cooperative future relationship.

If Minnie phoned me as her coach to discuss this, I would have said that any introspective person can always think of a way they could improve on a persuasive or consensus-seeking conversation. She did well to consider exactly what she could have said to make that conversation even better, so that she learns from the experience.

But considering what you can learn from an experience is different from assessing the effects of your skill usage in that experience. Minnie’s skill use was productive by a more appropriate test: What would she have said to Mickey if she had not paused to think of a question to de-escalate the wrong making?

Without using her skills, Minnie would have blurted, “Are you kidding? It took an hour and a half out of my day when I picked you up from the car repair, drove you to work, then, dropped you back at the garage.”

Then, what would be Mickey’s attitude toward her? I wouldn’t have to tell Minnie, and I don’t have to tell you readers, that his attitude would have worsened. He would be far from cooperative, on the occasion in question as well as in the future.

So the next time you get a case of the “if onlys,” be as positive with yourself as you know I would be if you phoned me to debrief a conversation. Ask yourself, “What would have happened if I had not used my skills?” If your answer is, “Things would have gone from imperfect to disastrous,” give yourself a pat on the back and keep practicing those skills!