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Four Simple Rules To Avoid Saying Something You'll Regret

Here's how to make sure you'll always say something memorable—for the right reasons.

Four Simple Rules To Avoid Saying Something You'll Regret
[Photo: ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images]

Daniel Craig, the 47-year-old actor who's portrayed James Bond for nearly a decade, had just finished filming Spectre, the 24th Bond film and Craig’s fourth in the franchise. He still had one more to do, according to the terms of his contract, but had been offered a new role in a TV series. When a reporter asked Craig if he’d ever play Bond again after that, he declared, "I’d rather break this glass and slash my wrists . . . All I want to do is move on."

Speaking spontaneously encourages candor, but sometimes it's at the expense of tact. Aware that he'd insulted the Bond franchise, Craig did some quick damage control and didn't get fired. But the fact that such a seasoned speaker would slam the role he’d been playing shows how careful we have to be in off-the-cuff moments.

Sometimes what we say can seriously damage our reputations and careers. And as impromptu speaking becomes more common in workplaces with ever fewer boundaries, thanks to technology and the flattening of hierarchies, we all need to be more conscious of showing respect and avoiding slip-ups.

These four simple rules can help you speak openly and honestly—even off the cuff—without losing your professional poise.

1. Speak Well Of Your Company

Few people will come right out and tell you to speak well of your employer at all times, but the risks of not doing so outweigh any annoyance that may come with staying outwardly positive. If you're in a job interview, for instance, and insult a previous employer, you’ll look bad. Even truthful statements like, "I was tired of working as an intern for too little money" can still strike a prospective employer as a red flag.

It's in your best interest not to share your frustrations with the gig and instead tell your interviewer about how it helped you learn and grow. It doesn't mean pretending that the negatives didn't exist (most smart listeners, whether that's a hiring manager or anybody else, will assume they did), it just means keeping them to yourself. That's especially true if you're a leader—leaders are loyal and never openly criticize their organizations.

Keep in mind, too, that social media is not a place to share complaints. I recently saw a tweet from someone who "spent 15 years in soul-sucking Big Pharma." Future employers or clients would likely pass on that individual, even if he or she had a perfectly good reason for having that sentiment. The fact is that every word about an employer should be positive, even in casual environments like social media or a networking happy hour—it's just the more strategic move.

2. Show Respect For Your Boss

Speaking off the cuff doesn’t mean shooting from the hip. Take care that your comments aren’t hurtful or disrespectful to your boss.

In a recent New York Times article about Mic, a five-year-old news source created by and for millennials, the CEO, Chris Altchek, told of an embarrassing encounter he had with an outspoken new hire. Altchek had just responded favorably to a request that Muslim holidays be included in Mic’s flexible time-off policy. "Being inclusive and respectful of all religious affiliations is incredibly important to Mic," he told the Times. But in a subsequent small-group meeting, according to the article, a Mic staffer told Altchek he should've been more apologetic, saying there were two words missing from his statement.

"What were those?" he asked.

"I’m sorry." She said. "I didn’t hear an apology."

This accusation, delivered in front of a group, simply shows a lack of respect and points to some of the dangers of spontaneity. That employee, the Times recounted, is no longer with the company. As corporate cultures become more relaxed and exchanges more spontaneous, there’s still a need for sensitivity when expressing one’s views.

Everyone should feel comfortable confronting their supervisors about issues they care about, especially where inclusivity is concerned. But it's one thing to have an earnest and respectful one-on-one conversation and another to single your boss out in a public setting.

3. Speak Well Of Your Colleagues

You already know it's important to be a team player, which means speaking respectfully to your colleagues. But it's sometimes difficult to put that knowledge into practice, especially the more familiar and casual your team becomes. If you get a laugh at someone’s expense, you’re already on dangerous terrain.

Recently a boss I know was "honoring" an employee who was retiring, and his words were actually pretty scathing: "Chris is a memorable figure. One colleague will remember him for being late, another for his crazy sense of humor, and still another for the fact that he has always been a party animal." This was all said with a wry smile and seeming goodwill, but it still felt unprofessional and inconsiderate to Chris. It doesn't do a speaker any credit to diss a colleague, even in jest.

When speaking off the cuff about others, never lose sight of your own values. Ideally, there shouldn't be a "private" you and a "public" you when it comes to your values and respect for others. Granting that, not everything you share with a close colleague in a private setting should be voiced publicly. And if you unthinkingly air those views before a group in the spur of the moment, you're more likely to say something others find deeply insulting.

4. Show Self-Respect

Your career also depends on your ability to project a consistent and credible "brand" for yourself. The more you move into leadership positions, the more the spotlight will shine on you. It isn't always easy, but leaders don’t undercut themselves when they feel vulnerable, tired, or upset.

I once heard a female VP who was feeling nervous about speaking to a large crowd remark nervously from the podium, "I hate public speaking." Thing is, no one would've known that just by looking at her, but sharing it made her appear less leader-like than she might have preferred. We often hear similar slips from those accepting awards. Some say, "I really don’t deserve this," or, "I'm not in the same league as the other winners." We even apologize in our voicemails ("Sorry, I’m not at my desk") when there’s no need to. The formula is simple: Show some self-respect, and you'll command respect from others.

It's unfashionable to talk earnestly about "manners" these days, but showing a measure of respect is still critical in business—and that doesn't need to mean forced formality. A little bit of tact and professionalism will get you far in your career, contributing to a better self-image and stronger relationships with others.

So watch out for the pitfalls of impromptu speaking, which is where your ordinary poise is most liable to slip. When you’re speaking spontaneously, pause, think, and then speak. Then you'll say something others remember—for the right reasons.

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