How to Recover From Your Most Awkward Moments

The key to handling interactions with grace: anticipating the other person’s point of view (often before they know it themselves)

By Mary Loftus from Psychology Today
Also in Reader's Digest Magazine September 2013

Dart on a play

Mark Hooper/Getty Images

How to: Frame Criticism

No one likes being told he is doing something wrong, which means that even “constructive criticism” is usually received with defensiveness. That’s why Denver psychologist Susan Heitler— a founder of, a website focused on building communication skills—recommends feedback that “skips the complaining and goes straight to the explaining.”

For instance, while cooking, don’t say to your husband, “That’s not the way to sauté. It will dry out the potatoes.” Instead, offer helpful advice such as “My grandma taught me three tips for keeping sautéed potatoes soft and yummy: Start your potatoes and onions in a hot skillet, keep adding small amounts of butter, and keep stirring until the onions are translucent.”

For parents, the same approach applies to homework and chores. Choose encouraging statements over stern commands, and say what you’d prefer your child do rather than what she has not done or has done incorrectly. Say “I’d love to see your playroom cleaned up by this weekend so you andyour friends can have fun there” instead of “This place is a mess! What have you been doing? You haven’t picked up one thing. No one is coming over this weekend until this room is spotless.”

Who Knew? Critical Corrections
Criticism makes or breaks all kinds of relationships. Criticism is the single most significant factor in a child’s perception of his relationship with his parent. As for adults, Jill Hooley, a psychologist at Harvard, and John Teasdale, a psychologist now at Cambridge, found in one influential study that the single best predictor of relapse for married adults with depression is their response to the question “How critical is your spouse of you?” Patients who relapsed rated their spouses as significantly more critical than did patients who remained well. In any relationship, it’s crucial to criticize without demeaning or humiliating.

How to: Get an Honest Answer
You’re buying a used car, moving into a new apartment, or determining which doctor should treat your cancer. These are times when you need to get directly to the core of an issue.

Asking general questions elicits little valuable information and may even yield deceptive responses, says Julia Minson, a visiting scholar in decision sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. The best bet, says Minson, is to ask probing questions that presume there are problems.

Let’s say someone is selling a used iPod. An example of a general question is “What can you tell me about it?” A positive-assumption question is “There aren’t any problems with it, right?” But a negative-assumption question such as “What problems have you had with it?” will get the most honest response, found Minson and colleagues.

In a study that set up a fake sales interaction, 87 percent of the sellers alerted the buyer to problems when asked a negative-assumption question versus 59 percent of those responding to a positive-assumption query and 10 percent of those responding to a general one.

When you want the unvarnished truth, you have to ask for it: What mechanical problems does this car have? What are the worst parts of this job? How many people with my kind of illness have been successfully treated? What are their relapse rates? Your questions should communicate that you assume there will be difficulties and drawbacks and that you want to know about them.

Next: How to have a good time at a party »

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