In general, I appreciate clear language that has a concise point. In social situations I’m charmed by a clever turn of phrase or unexpected metaphor. In sticky situations, I’m a fan of the graceful exit. Recently, I witnessed all three wrapped up in a brief email a client asked me to review. He had been pitching a project to a potential customer and received this reply, “There are better things on which you could be using your time and talents.” Since this was email, it was hard to tell if his correspondent was showing disinterest in the subject, suggesting others would be disinterested, or (least likely) suggesting that my client’s time and talents would truly go to waste on such a project. I am intrigued by the response for its variety of possible interpretations.

It’s not too different than the oracles of ancient Greece. Many a confused man found his way to Delphi to consult the famed oracle on everything from family matters to public policy to investments. Men would utter a question, make an offering, and wait for the oracle to deliver a message. The resulting prophecies are a fascinating study in language; their intentional ambiguity allowed the oracle to be right regardless of the outcome. This verbal dexterity can often be observed in politicians and salespeople. The ability to speak without confirming a particular point of view is quite a trick.

The ability to speak without confirming a particular point of view is quite a trick.

There are many useful ways to employ the magic of the oracle. It might not be quite as fun as the ubiquitous Magic Eight Ball from your teenage years, but the list below offers a few agile turns of phrase to help you navigate a handful of tenuous situations:

  1. When you don’t have much to say, “That’s really something,” does the trick.
  2. When you can’t agree and don’t want to disagree, “I hadn’t thought of it that way,” can help you escape.
  3. When you need a response that doesn’t paint you into a corner, “I’ve never seen/heard anything like that,” can save you.
  4. When you don’t want to give advice, “You would know better than I would,” sets you free.
  5. When you need time to think, “I’d really like to hear your opinion,” buys you a few minutes.
  6. When you don’t want to weigh in, “What does ________ think?” can turn the attention away from you.
  7. When the answer doesn’t matter to you, “I trust your judgement,” will move things forward.

While I don’t encourage stonewalling in conversations or regularly evading requests, there are occasions when a bit of verbal gymnastics will serve you well. When you need a little help finding the right words, we’re here to help!

Talk to you next week,

Amber D. Nelson



P.S.  Send along an email or Tweet and tell me about your best “oracle” moment.  or how you puzzled over someone’s crafty communications slight-of-hand.


Cover of Amber Nelson's book, "Talk to Me"

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