You know that feeling when someone tosses a snide comment your way, and you just stammer out something lame in response, and then it’s a few hours later and you’re doing something totally unrelated and all of a sudden it hits you, the absolutely perfect thing to say? And then you spend the rest of the day alternately cursing yourself and trying to re-create the same circumstances, in the hopes that you will finally have a chance to use your comeback, and then, when you do, it completely fails and just makes you look even more awkward?
That feeling is the worst. But the universe is a cruel place, not a sitcom, and most real-life people don’t have Chandler Bing’s preternatural ability to whip out the perfect quippy, biting remark for any situation. (Or, more accurately, most people don’t get a script for the day that allows us to head to work with our zingers already prepared.) As the BBC recently noted, though, there’s a tip from the world of improv acting that can help even the most awkward among us to create comebacks on the fly: Focus, really focus, on what the other person is saying.
The reason, the BBC explained, is that careful attention keeps you from getting ahead of yourself. We think faster than we speak, meaning that while another person is talking, your brain is already forming what you’re going to say in response. It seems like good preparation, but often, that process inhibits us from fully absorbing what the other person is saying: “Most of us don’t listen to the whole message,” acting coach and improv performer Abigail Paul told the BBC. “We are just waiting to make our own points.”
But because improv requires actors to build on what their partners are doing, they learn to listen more thoroughly before speaking, allowing them to better connect their next line to the one that was just delivered. Similarly, if you have a friend or colleague that’s especially snarky — in the bad, directed-toward-you way, not the fun let’s-make-fun-of-everyone-else way — concentrate more closely on what they say than you normally would, and you may find yourself better equipped to assemble a response that builds off the original offending comment.
The key to a witty reply, in other words, is just basic listening, a skill that comes with time and practice. Paul suggested “one-word volleyball,” a technique where actors tell a story by switching off every other word. “The goal is that we let go of our own ego and our own ideas,” she said, “because a huge part of listening is that you really have to be willing to be changed by what’s being said.” What you thought was a snappy response when the other person first started talking may not make as much sense by the end of their sentence; listening carefully can keep you mentally nimble enough to adjust quickly.
Some of the more specific suggestions in the BBC article are a little goofy (“If a colleague tells you, ‘Oh that’s real smart,’ Paul says she might try this: ‘Thanks. I don’t always receive praise for my intelligence’”), but the overall message is a good one: Pay attention to what’s being said, and you’re less likely to be caught verbally defenseless. And if all else fails, take comfort in the knowledge that you are rubber and they are glue. Just maybe don’t say that one out loud.