How to Recover When You Say Something Stupid

I hate to admit this since I specialize in interpersonal communication, but I’ve been known to say something stupid once in a while. It doesn’t happen often (that I know of) but when it does, I feel dumb and embarrassed. How about you?

communication skills with Laura Benjamin

Have you ever said something you regretted? Wish you could get a “do over”? Better yet, want some ways to avoid it in the first place or recover with your self-respect intact?

There you are out in public, at a party, a workplace event, with a client, customer or co-worker. Maybe you’re trying to be light-hearted or humorous. Perhaps you want to be helpful but it comes out all wrong.

I once innocently called out to someone heading for a public restroom and said, “Sir! Sir! That’s the ladies room!” Then SHE turned around and with a look that could kill said, “I beg your pardon!” It was a bit awkward.

That experience (and a few others) taught me to do the following:


Count to 10. That brief pause will give your brain time to catch up with your mouth and give you the chance to get more information or reconsider what you were about to say.

Let someone else go first. If you’re in a group, resist the temptation to comment before anyone else does. You don’t win a prize for taking the lead in every conversation. (Exception: when something dangerous is about to occur.)

Imagine your image. Consider the type of person you want to portray. Do you want to be perceived as:

  • Angry (Alec Baldwin)
  • Sarcastic (Dr. Gregory House – Hugh Laurie)
  • Wise (Yoda)
  • Intimidating (Darth Vader)
  • or comical…

Darth Vaders Bride

Notice when you’re nervous. I think our potential to make a mistake with our mouth increases if we’re upset or nervous. Rate your nervous level on a scale from 1-10 and then decide whether you trust yourself to sound kind, credible, respectful, intelligent at that point in time.

Ask yourself, what’s at risk? Could you lose a job, piece of business, sponsorship or risk a relationship? How would you feel if your words showed up in the newspaper or featured on the 5 o’clock news? Then ask yourself, what’s the reward? What benefit will be gained?


Apologize. As soon as you realize how your words could have been misinterpreted or the impact you had on someone, say you’re sorry. Most people will overlook a lot if they feel you are sincerely apologetic. Even if a few days have passed, it’s never too late to make amends.

Mention your motivation. There’s nothing wrong with explaining where you were coming from by saying, “I hope you know I was trying to be ____________ (light-hearted, sympathetic, humorous, witty, etc.) when I said XYZ.” Sometimes describing your intent, even though it went horribly wrong, will help people cut you some slack.

Ask a question. As quickly as possible after becoming aware of your gaffe, ask “Did what I just say sound stupid, insensitive or rude?” Then you can follow up by saying, “I really was trying to ______________” and explain yourself. Make sure you are accountable for what you said.


I don’t want to imply we should avoid being truthful, transparent or courageous in our communication. Important issues need to be raised. People must be held accountable. Wrongs should be set right. Nobody benefits when we’re too fearful to say what needs to be said. But there’s also a responsibility to consider how we come across. We can still be persuasive, powerful and influential while being sensitive to words and timing.

The mark of a true professional and a self-aware person often requires we balance two competing goals or conflicting concepts to get a constructive outcome.

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” ~F. Scott Fitzgerald

And finally, don’t beat yourself up if you say something stupid. We have ALL been there. Make your amends and then move on. Don’t belabor it. There’s no need to grovel. Just consider this another important lesson learned on the way to becoming a fully enlightened human being!


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