If there is one place where we never want to find our foot, it’s in our mouth. And yet we all do, at one time or another. We say something that offends, embarrasses, or upsets someone else and wish like the dickens that we could take it back.
The “put my foot in my mouth” idiom first appeared in the late 1800s and is thought to have originated with stepping in mud or feces. Well, that makes sense because when I find my foot in my mouth, I feel like I’ve got mud on my face or, frankly, crap on my shoes. My “cringe-response” kicks in when I know I’ve stepped right into it.
I once told a new friend who cherishes the time with her college-age kids that I was looking forward to getting together with her when the kids were out. What was I thinking? My comment was the epitome of inconsiderate and I worried it would put a wedge in our relationship. I managed to recover…but more about “recovery” later.
I often called my husband, Dean, by my first husband’s name. Okay, granted it was early in our marriage, and my ex also had a one-syllable name, but still. Now, that was 29 years ago, so mercifully, I recovered.
The “experts” are somewhat vague about precisely why the foot in mouth moment happens. Some say it is because we:
- assume that the other person trusts our good intentions and won’t be hurt by anything we say
- fail to consider the other person’s point of view or values (a la my comment to my friend)
- get caught up in the moment and don’t think before we speak
Keep Your Foot Where it Belongs
There may be no definitive way to eliminate the foot in mouth phenomenon entirely, but there actions we can take to minimize its occurrence. Here are four to reach for before you even open your mouth:
Pause: Close your mouth. Consider what you are about to say before you say it.
Clarify your motivation: Consider the reason behind what you are about to say. Are your intentions good, or is there a slight or a judgment lurking behind them? Are your words likely to help or hurt this person?
Put yourself in their shoes: Consider how this person might feel based on their values, perspective, experiences, and hot buttons.
Consider “add or subtract”: Ask yourself: “Will what I am about to say add or subtract from our bond?”
Recover from a Foot-in-Mouth Moment
Let’s say that you do put your foot in your mouth and catch yourself. In that case you can take responsibility with these four actions:
Apologize: Be the person you claim to be and own it! You might say: “I’m sorry, that wasn’t called for.” Or, “I was out of line just now, I’m sorry.”
Clarify: Step up to the plate by explaining what you really meant. You might say: “That didn’t come out right. What I meant was…” Or, “What I meant to say was…”
Learn from it: Every foot-in-mouth moment is an opportunity to gain a better understanding of what triggers a mindless or insensitive comment. I know that when I am emotionally charged about something, I am more inclined to find my foot in my mouth. I have asked a couple of people to be my accountability partners on this so that I will know when I have stepped in it!
Let it go: Don’t beat yourself up. Accept that you are human and do better the next time!