L’esprit d’escalier: when you think of the perfect reply too late

We’ve all been there: after a dissatisfactory disagreement or argument, the right thing to have said or done becomes crystal clear just as it’s too late. The perfect riposte occurs to us as we’re on the staircase on the way out. But the chance has gone even though we might run it over and over again in our mind or conversation afterwards.

Variations of this frustration and dilemma come up often in coaching. Often, it’s compounded by a sense that it happens during the most important moments. I once worked with someone who was highly confident most of the time and able to speak their mind fluently and effectively without this phenomenon occurring, except when he was in a room with famous people. Another found they would freeze up when the tone of a negotiation became confrontational or aggressive. And others have found that when they’re put on the spot in board meetings, their normal eloquence falls away.

It’s when we’ve been able to identify particular circumstances that cause this problem that we’re often able to work out a fix that works by using CBT.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is an approach which requires conscious pre-planning of a response to a situation to replace an unsatisfactory response that occurs by default. I saw a great example of it in action last Christmas when I was on my way to Muswell Hill.

I was walking along a slightly dodgy road when a door opened and someone lurched out on to the pavement and bumped into me. He was rather wild-eyed and this initial impression was compounded when he proposed that I might have paid greater attention to my surroundings using concise and blunt language. But to his great credit the next moment he immediately apologised for what he’d said and for our collision. He really was sorry about what he’d said and was glad that he’d managed to correct himself. I was a bit relieved but also recognised all the signs of successful application of CBT.

He’d 1) responded without thinking, in a compromising way 2) recognised the pattern that had caused this to happen 3) changed his behaviour to a pre-prepared response he’d learned would be more helpful. Consequently he didn’t get into a fight which might have been what would have happened to him in other circumstances. It would have been better if his first response had been 3) but this was a work in progress and in time it would be.

It gave a simple and clear illustration of three stage process that can help you to manage your response so you don’t end up regretting it.

During executive coaching, the first task is to get a clear understanding of the circumstances in which the problem is likely to occur. A common factor is that these are likely to be ones that give rise to unusual levels of stress or anxiety. This stress or anxiety then becomes a distraction and undermines the ability to act “normally”. Often this is because people start acting with excessive deliberation; they are frozen by thinking through their response too much.

I encourage clients to identify the physical sensations that are part of this stress response. I will also ask that they give it a name, so that when they feel it starting they have an immediate label to pin on it. I will encourage the client to use a funny or self-deprecating name for their response. So, for example, the client who was intimidated by famous people noticed that they would start getting short of breath and that their palms became sweaty. When they realised this was happening, they told themselves that is was OK, they were just getting “all in a tizzy”.

The point is to recognise the point when you’re at risk and to get used to laughing at it rather than being over-whelmed by its importance. I’ll ask clients to monitor themselves for several week or even several months to just get used to watching out for the signs. Sometimes they’ll make notes in a journal, some even end up making a game to trying to catch themselves out.

Once they’re happily identifying the circumstances they can move on to the second part which is to be clear about the preferred response. Often this is simply to be relaxed and to be as you are under normal conditions. Again, we might give this a name, but this time a more aspirational one. So the response to being “all in a tizzy” was to instead “be cool”.

This then combines with the third part, which is the real trick i.e. to do it then and there, rather than after the event and on the way out on the staircase. This can be hard due to habit, expectation and precedent. Falling into the familiar trap can paradoxically contribute to the problem occurring.

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance

Franklin D. Roosevelt

Avoiding l’esprit d’escalier is all about timing of course and it takes practice, observation and self knowledge to achieve this. But I find that once people have cracked the first stage and can see when they’re about to get encumbered with a stress response, that acting in real time comes often naturally. In other cases, it can be harder, but there are techniques I can work through with clients to strengthen “psychological muscle” and develop new habits.

Of course, life is full of surprises and the process I’ve outlined isn’t a copper-bottomed way of never being caught out again. But it can be effective for many commonly occurring problems, which often will have plagued people for a long time.

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