What to Say When You Don't Know What to Say

Have you ever been in a work situation where someone said something so inappropriate that you didn't know how to respond? Radical Candor author Kim Scott has some simple tips from her new book, Just Work: Get Sh*t Done Fast and Fair.

Kim Scott
5-minute read

Has someone said something in a meeting that was so offensive it just left you gobsmacked, having no idea what to say? Unfortunately, this probably happened to you in the past day if not the past hour. Maybe the offensive thing was said to you, maybe it was directed at someone else. But either way, you want to say something but don’t know what to say. And your silence robs you of your agency, just a little.

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Here are some tips to figuring out what to say next time this happens, as it inevitably will.

1. Name the problem

Bias is “not meaning it.” Bias, often called “unconscious bias,” comes from the part of our mind that jumps to conclusions, usually without our even being aware of it. These conclusions and assumptions aren’t always wrong, but they often are, especially when they reflect stereotypes. We do not have to be the helpless victims of our brains. We can learn to slow down and question our biases.

Prejudice is “meaning it.” Unfortunately, when we do stop to think, we often don’t always come up with the best answer. Sometimes, we rationalize our biases and they harden into prejudices. In other words, we justify our biases rather than challenging their flawed assumptions and stereotypes.

Bullying is “being mean,” the intentional, repeated use of in-group status or power to harm or humiliate others. Sometimes bullying comes with prejudice, but often it’s a more instinctive behavior. There may be no thought or ideology at all behind it. It can be a plan or just an animal instinct to dominate, to coerce.

2. Match the response to the problem

When people’s biases are pointed out to them clearly and compassionately, they usually correct them and apologize.

What’s important is to draw a clear boundary between people’s right to believe whatever they want and their freedom to impose their prejudices on others.

Prejudice, however, is a conscious and ingrained belief. People don’t change their prejudices simply because someone points them out. Holding up a mirror doesn’t help—people like what they see. What’s important is to draw a clear boundary between people’s right to believe whatever they want and their freedom to impose their prejudices on others.

Bullying has to incur real consequences to be stopped. If bullies were swayed by being aware of the harm they are doing to the people they are bullying, they wouldn’t be treating other people badly in the first place. Usually they are trying to hurt someone. Pointing out the pain they are inflicting doesn’t make them stop and may even encourage them to double down.

3. Start with these words

If you think it’s bias, start with the word “I.”

Starting with the word “I” invites the person to consider things from your point of view—why what they said or did seemed biased to you. The easiest “I” statement is the simple factual correction.

For example, early in my career an executive referred to me as a “pretty girl.” An “I” statement might have been “I don’t think you will ever take me seriously when you refer to me as ‘pretty girl.’" Recently, when I was about to go on stage to give a talk, a conference attendee ran up to me and insisted that I fetch him a safety pin. An “I” statement might have been, “I’m the speaker; I think one of the staffers can help you find a safety pin.” A CEO of Asian descent was waiting by the valet station for his car and an employee, making a biased assumption, walked up to him an handed him her keys. He replied, “I think you’ve confused me with the valet. I am your CEO, not your valet; here to serve, but in a different capacity.”

I spent some time, time you won’t have in the moment, editing those two suggestions. An “I” statement doesn’t need to be perfect; doesn’t have to be clever or witty. It can even be clumsy. The point is to say something.

If you think it’s prejudice, start with the word “it.”

One type of “It” statement appeals to common sense: “It is ridiculous not to hire the most qualified candidate because of their hair.” Another references the policies or a code of conduct at your company: For example, “It is a violation of our company policy not to hire someone because of their hair.” The third invokes the law: For example, “It is illegal to refuse to hire someone because of their hair.”

Responding to bias is hard, but it’s much harder to respond when people believe that gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic background, or any other personal attribute makes someone else incapable or inferior in some way. The reason to confront prejudice is to draw a bright line between that person’s right to believe whatever they want and your right not to have that belief imposed upon you. Using an “It” statement is an effective way to demarcate this boundary.

If you think it’s bullying, start with the word “you.”

When someone is bullying you, the person’s goal is to harm you. Telling the person you are being harmed is just going to result in more bad behavior. Ignoring bullies doesn’t work, either. The only way to stop bullying is to create negative consequences for the person doing the bullying. Only when bullying stops being practical or enjoyable will bullies alter their behavior. When you’re the victim of bullying, or when you’re a bystander and the bully is more powerful than you, you often feel powerless to stop it.

One way to push back is to confront the person with a “you” statement, as in “What’s going on for you here?” or “You need to stop talking to me that way.” A “You” statement is a decisive action, and it can be surprisingly effective in changing the dynamic. That’s because the bully is trying to put you in a submissive role, to demand that you answer the questions to shine a scrutinizing spotlight on you. When you reply with a “You” statement, you are now taking a more active role, asking them to answer the questions, shining a scrutinizing spotlight on them.

What if you’re not sure what is going on?

That’s OK. Trust your instincts. If you respond to a remark as if it’s evidence of prejudice or bullying when it was in fact bias, that’s OK. You can shift to a different statement. Just remember, An “I” statement invites the person to consider your perspective; an “It” statement establishes a clear boundary beyond which the other person should not go. With a “you” statement, you are talking about the bully, not yourself. People can let your statement lie or defend themselves against it, but they are playing defense rather than offense in either case.

About the Author

Kim Scott

Kim Scott is the author of Just Work: Get Sh*t Done, Fast and Fair and Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity and co-founder of the company Radical Candor. Kim was a CEO coach at Dropbox, Qualtrics, Twitter, and other tech companies. She was a member of the faculty at Apple University and before that led AdSense, YouTube, and DoubleClick teams at Google. Kim managed a pediatric clinic in Kosovo and started a diamond-cutting factory in Moscow. She lives with her family in Silicon Valley.