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Episode #25: Can I Say Something?
a phrase to buy you time on the floor.
One of my colleagues in graduate school would talk about how when there is a conversation that isn’t going your way—things are being said that you don’t agree with but you can’t quite stop the verbal avalanche—you need to “grab the words out of the air and stop them!” In her typical fashion, when she said “grab the words out the air” she actually lifted her hand and grabbed the air—showing me how visceral one needs to be in order to command verbal avalanches to stop mid-fall. When I heard her advice, at first, I struggled to understand just what was meant.
How do you grab a word mid-conversation and put on the verbal breaks?
And how does doing so reconcile with the adage that once spoken, a word can never be taken back?
After the advice of my colleague marinated with me a bit, I started to understand that it had less to do with the actual words, but visualizing those words as part of a river of words with flow and momentum. If the current of that flow and momentum feels wrong, too fast, or unfamiliar to us, we need tools to intervene and adjust that flow and momentum.
We need to grab the words as they pass before us and redirect the speaker::listener relationship.
A useful tool to grab ever flowing words and redirect them comes not from the cloistered memories of my time in graduate school, but from the wisdom of a 4 year old boy—my partner’s nephew Joey. I don’t know where he picked up the phrase, but he is fond of interrupting adults mid-conversation with the interjection: “Can I say something?” and when it’s really pressing, “Can I say something, please?”
Without fail, this interjection immediately puts a pause button on the conversation and draws everyone’s attention to Joey and what he might have to say.
Often, in fact, he has nothing to say! But he enjoys the attention and I enjoy seeing someone so young demonstrate the power of rhetoric and how having a useful phrase in back-of-mind can stop a conversation and redirect the conversation’s flow to oneself. Luckily, he’s cute as a button, so he can get away with these interruptions as many times as he wishes.
However, for those of us whose cuteness may have faded, we can still take a lesson from Joey and deploy this key phrase when we need to stop a conversation and redirect its flow.
There’s a limited window after saying it, so be prepared to say what you need to in order to redirect the conversation. With near certainty, I can almost assure you that as a society, we are conditioned to stop and listen whenever when we hear:
Can I say something?
It is an easy request to honor. And now you have a linguistic tool—a rhetorical phrase—to buy yourself time on the floor.
And time, as they say, is the most valuable resource we have. Use interruption wisely and in strategic moments to redirect your verbal conflicts towards more productive and positive ends. You can be in control.