Jamie Sussel Turner_What to say when you’re speechless

What to Say — in the Moment — When You’re Speechless

A few years ago I was helping a friend move into an apartment.

As I stood in the filthy shower, attempting to wipe away the scum, a woman, supposedly there to help, was instead leaning against the door jamb when she blurted out,

“Oh, I wouldn’t do that—I’d get a Mexican.”

I bet your jaw dropped—just like mine did in that moment.

I was speechless. Stunned. Unprepared to respond. So, what did I do?

I’m embarrassed to say I did nothing. I said nothing.

What would you have said?

I feel a swell of stress rising when I’m hit with a speechless moment. It’s uncomfortable, at best. The stress can linger long after the encounter as I aim to figure out what I could have said.

Not all speechless moments have to do with racism or prejudice. They come in all forms. One is being asked way too personal questions like, “When is the baby due?” when you’re not expecting. (Oh, yes, this has happened to me.)

Or how about those too personal financial questions; “How much are you making in your new job?” or “What did you pay for your house?”

I’m trying to get better at how to reply in these shocking moments since usually, I’m so stunned it renders me speechless (and I’m rarely speechless).

While silence also speaks volumes, I’ve been wanting to say more—in the moment. But what?

I don’t want to criticize or embarrass the other person.

I really just want to stand up for my beliefs and hold up a little mirror so they have an opportunity to become more aware of the impact of their words.

So, here’s the strategy I’ve been trying out:

I simply reflect back on what the person said.

In the first example, I wish I had thought to reflect back on the woman’s racial slur by saying, “Oh, are you saying only Mexicans can clean bathrooms?” I have no idea how she would have replied. But, just maybe my question could have been a start to a powerful conversation.

I had an opportunity to try my new approach when a friend told me about her recent experience shopping for bathroom tile.

After being shown one particular selection that was too glitzy for her taste, my friend told me she replied to the salesperson,

“Oh, that’s too Guido!”

Now I was prepared.

Shocked that my friend had unintentionally made a derogatory slur against Italians, I simply replied, “Oh, you thought the tile was too Guido?”

She paused for a moment, hearing her words reflected back, and said, “Was that not a PC comment? What does Guido mean anyway?”

We then had a real conversation (and a good laugh) about how sometimes we parrot back words we’ve known or heard without fully considering their meaning.

We’ve all done this without realizing how others may take our words.

If you’d like to give this a try, here’s one caveat: When reflecting back on someone’s words you have to remove any snarkiness from your voice and maintain a completely even tone that oozes curiosity.

Otherwise, the other person will strike back, become defensive, and not hear what you’re saying.

Of course, there’s no guarantee this reflection will help the person “get it.” But, at least you’ll feel like you’ve made an effort to speak up for what you believe, possibly raising their awareness, and lessening your stress in the process.

So, I’d say when you are speechless you can reflect the other person’s words back to them with curiosity. You’ll feel empowered and also maybe even open the door to a powerful conversation that could shift their beliefs.


For more insightful advice from Jamie, please visit:

Website: The Less Stress Coach

Less Stress Business: A Guide to Hiring, Coaching, and Leading Great Employees
Less Stree Life: How I Went from Crazed to Calm and You Can Too

Is a Stress-Free Life Possible?
If You Choose to Get Better at Stress – I Guarantee You Can


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