Creative Leadership

Allow Your Adversaries to “Save Face”

My wife Kathleen and I had an interesting incident happen on a flight from Nashville the other day.  She had brought a small roll-aboard case that you normally have to gate check when you fly on the smaller, regional jets. But while this looks the same as most, it’s actually considerably smaller, and even on the small jets fits nicely into the overhead compartment. We boarded  the flight, and put our bags up, but when the flight attendant tried to shut the compartment she couldn’t get it closed.

Looking at Kathleen’s bag, she immediately assumed that was the problem, and launched into a rather loud speech about how she needed to check the bag.  Kathleen tried to explain that it fit fine, but the flight attendant wouldn’t hear of it and went forward to get a luggage tag. While she was gone, Kathleen got up and quickly realized it was actually my small canvas bag that was the problem. I hadn’t pushed it in all the way, so the strap was blocking the compartment door. With a little push on my bag the door shut easily.

When the flight attendant came back she was flustered and a little embarrassed, because she had made such a big deal out of it in front of all the passengers.  Realizing she had been wrong, she tried to defend herself by lecturing us on the rules she has to obey and how bags have to be measured, blah, blah, blah.

For the rest of the flight, she was cold toward us.She served us, but without a smile, and never looked us in the eye.  She didn’t like us at all.

It made me realize the importance of giving people an “out” when you’re proven right. In that case, even though Kathleen was correct and the flight attendant was wrong, it didn’t help us for her to be angry and inattentive for the rest of the flight. It’s the same way in business situations. Being right is a good thing, but if it happens at the expense of your adversary, then it can poison the relationship for a long time.

I’ve had many clients who had someone on their team who disagreed with me – sometimes very strongly. I knew that even if I prove them wrong, it won’t help in the long term because I’ll have to continue working with them. So I had to create a way for everyone to realize the truth, without him being embarrassed or hurt.

I hope you’ll always be honest in your business dealings. But I also hope you allow your adversary to save face – to keep their dignity and help them back out of the situation without being embarrassed or humiliated.  Believe me – for a host of reasons, allowing them to save face can be a far greater win for you than being right.

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  1. You are so right Phil.  The real challenge is in actually pulling these face saving maneuvers off.  Any pointers on that will be gratefully received by yours truly!  Some people are really good at this.  I’d love to hear any advice the most graceful among us care to share!

  2. It takes great humility to pull this off.  I work with a few people that actually alienate their own employees by not allowing them to save face.  Instead, humiliation.  The end result: an unhappy employee that turns into a "yes man" as he tries to find ways to save face in future decision-making.

  3. Good thoughts, Phil. I think "face-saving" techniques are good to learn even when working among non-adversaries (so that they do not become adversaries!) Here are a few things I have learned from being both the embarass-ee and the embarass-or: 

    1) Try to respond rather than react to situations.

    Had the stewardess quietly and calmly informed you that she needed to get a tag because the luggage did not appear to fit, when she returned she could have been pleasantly surprised. Instead, she reacted in frustration, possibly because: a) It was the umpteenth piece of non-fitting luggage she had dealt with recently; b) Her baby spit up on her uniform that morning and she was reprimanded for being late; c) It was her husband’s birthday and she had to work, etc. Since she did not offer an apology or try to smooth things over, there was probably little you could have done except pray that the Lord would bless her and hope for a non-eventful flight. 

    2) Try to deal with potentialy embarassing situations privately.

    I am privileged to work with a music minister who is a master at making people feel "safe" when they perform. Even though the choir and orchestra are a large group, he tries to express concerns privately if they just concern one person. For example, he will not announce, "The trap set is TOO LOUD!" or "Mary, you are overpowering everyone!" Instead, he will either go to the person for a quick quiet correction or make general comments like "Let’s focus on blending. I’m hearing individual voices sticking out." If that still does not work, he will start rearranging people on stage "to get a better blend" (actually, he is moving Mary away from the microphones!") Having been the recipient of more than one of his private comments, I greatly appreciate not having hundreds of eyes focused on me while a correction is being made.

    3) Soften the blow with a compliment and/or try to be as tactful as possible.

    Everyone likes to feel that they – and their ideas – are important…and usually an idea will at least have some merit. Some adversaries can be won over by expressing appreciation for and validity of their views. Ex: "That is a good idea, which I think might work if we (had a bigger budget, more staff, etc.) However, I think we might need to go in a different direction."…or…"Do you have suggestions for making your idea work (within this budget)?"


    These approaches require constant practice and are easier said than done. Any other ideas?



  4. I think the reason to help the other person save face is because we, as Christians, are to comfort our brothers and sisters whenever possible.  The worldly benefits of being treated better or the absence of being treated badly should not be the motivation for being good to others, but merely a worldly benefit.  The real reason is that we are to be servants of each other.

  5. Saving face is showing grace (unmerited favor) and mercy, two of the things our Lord shows us on a daily basis. As He is, so are we–in this world. How else are others supposed to see Him, except reflected in us?

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