Touche! A workplace guide to the snappy comeback


Your boss says, “We don’t see you as having leadership potential,” or your colleague interrupts you AGAIN in the morning meeting. How are you to respond?

“It doesn’t’ matter how talented you are, these moments come up, and they’re often public,” says Kathleen Reardon, USC Marshall School of Business Professor of Management and Organization and the author of the newly released Comebacks at Work: Using Conversation to Master Confrontation (Harper Collins, 2010).

“No one is born a comeback expert,” says Dr. Reardon, who has spent her career training and teaching people how to communicate effectively. Yet we wish we could conjure up the perfect rejoinder, especially as knowing what to say has professional implications. According to Reardon, success in the workplace depends largely on how we handle ourselves in conversation; we are responsible for 75 percent of the way people respond to us.

“I wrote this book because I wanted to help people develop the ability to handle themselves on their feet when someone says when someone says something confrontational, awkward, embarrassing, or simply odd.”

To freshen up the stale scripts we often rely on, Dr. Reardon (the author of nine books, including the best seller The Secret Handshake) breaks down the art of the comeback, emphasizing preparation, keeping your cool, and handling conflicts with a carefully thought-out strategy.

In Comebacks, She explores:
•Why some comebacks work, while others fall flat;
•Why our mind goes blank when we are confronted, and how to overcome that response;
•How to “flip the power” in a conversation so it’s in your favor;
•How to determine which comebacks work, and when to use them.

Dr. Reardon also offers strategies for determining when it's best to walk away and when it's time to engage, and guides readers to self-discovery and skills, from honing their gut instincts to mastering facial expressions and gestures.

The communication strategies suggested in Comebacks are useful in a variety of social contexts outside the workplace, including when negotiating an important purchase or dealing with what Dr. Reardon describes as those inevitable “awkward, insulting, embarrassing exchanges” that seem to pop up on a daily basis, whether you’re at the gym or in line at Starbucks.

Dr Reardon’s strategies are also applicable across multiple platforms, including email, texting, Facebook and Twitter. “A lot of the same rules apply,” says Dr. Reardon, warning social media aficionados to remember that what they’re posting is permanent—not temporary, and to whenever possible give confrontational posters a chance to reconsider. “Give people a chance to do the right thing by responding: ‘I think what you meant to write…’”, she advises.

In addition, a good rule of thumb writes Dr. Reardon—whether you’re in a work meeting, at a holiday party, or on your Blackberry texting, “is to consider communication to be less about what somebody says to you than about how you receive that message and what you do about it.”

To read Kathleen Reardon’s regular blog postings chronicling current “Gotcha!” and “uncool” comebacks, visit her web site: www.comebacksatwork.com.

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