Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 1, Issue 48;   November 28, 2001: Dangerous Phrases

Dangerous Phrases

by

I recently upgraded my email program to a new version that "monitors messages for offensive text." It hasn't worked out well. But the whole affair got me to think about everyday phrases that do tend to set people off. Here's a little catalog.

I recently upgraded my email program to a new version that "monitors messages for offensive text." I wasn't sure how this would help, because I already know how to feel offended. It hasn't worked out well.

Corresponding with a colleague, I asked, "What's the X Foundation?" He told me some, and added, "Please excuse my ignorance, I don't know much." So I started typing, "Your ignorance is exceeded by my own."

At this point, my email program had had enough. Just as I typed the period, it bolded "Your ignorance" and colored it red. I tried to get rid of the bold-red, but I couldn't, so I sent the message anyway, hoping that the bold-red would somehow rub off en route.

FightingThe documentation for my email program told me that I had transgressed. To check this, I sent myself some deliberately offensive material. Sure enough, even though I wasn't offended at all, my email program became quite alarmed. I immediately unchecked the appropriate option, which is how you tell programs to buzz off. Now that it's gagged, I feel much better.

But the whole affair got me to think about everyday phrases that do tend to set people off. Here's a little catalog.

Blaming
Starting sentences with "You…", risks sounding like blaming or attacking. To really increase the chances, say, "You always…", "You never…", or "You're constantly…". To be clever, you might try "I think you're always…" but most people see right through that. The general rule is that if you try to tell people something unpleasant about themselves, and they haven't directly asked you for the information, you risk the appearance of attack or blame. If you must, ask for permission first.
Minimizing
When we use certain
trigger phrases, people
can feel blamed, minimized
or interrogated, and we
undercut the very goals
of our communications
Beginning with "Oh, that's easy…", "I don't see that as a problem, …", "Just make it happen," or "Let me explain it to you," risks being heard as minimizing another person's concerns, which can feel like minimizing the other person. Other ways to achieve the same explosive results: "Don't worry," "Calm down," "Relax," or "Trust me." Instead, give information about yourself, and then check it out: "Hmm, I wasn't worried about that, but perhaps I should I be?"
Interrogating
Starting a sentence with question words, such as who, what, where, or how much can be OK. Do it twice in a row, though, and you might come across as an interrogator. Try stating your conjecture as a guess, and asking for a comment about it. "It looks like you're pretty close to on budget," probably will elicit what you want much more effectively than "How much over budget are you?"

There are dozens more ways to set people off. You probably have a few of your own, so far undocumented by any expert. When it comes to conversational danger, we're all inventive. Go to top Top  Next issue: When Your Boss Is a Micromanager  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

Order from AmazonFor a more complete catalog of dangerous constructions, see Robert Bolton's People Skills: How to assert yourself, listen to others, and resolve conflicts Touchstone Books, 1986. Order from Amazon.com

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenBPfQuliaqEzFoLZJner@ChacVawhAFOHTnDbrbdyoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

View of Mt. St. HelensOwn Your Space
Since we spend so much of our waking lives in our offices, it's surprising how few of us take control of our immediate surroundings. If you do — if you make your space uniquely yours — you'll feel better about the time you spend at work.
The Gatun Locks of the Panama Canal, showing their guide wallsIn the Groove
Under stress, we sometimes make choices that we later regret. And we wonder, "Will I ever learn?" Fortunately, the problem usually isn't a failure to learn. Changing just takes practice.
A 1928 Ford Model A Business CoupeClueless on the Concept
When a team member seems not to understand something basic and important, setting him or her straight risks embarrassment and humiliation. It's even worse when the person attempting the "straightening" is wrong, too. How can we deal with people we believe are clueless on the concept?
Then-Capt. Elwood R. Quesada who became commanding general of the 9th Fighter Command in operation OverlordCommunication Refactoring in Organizations
Inadequate communication between units of large organizations is one factor that maintains the dysfunction of "silo" structures in large organizations, limiting their ability to act coherently. Communication refactoring can help large organizations to see themselves as wholes.
A voltmeter with a needleHigh Falutin' Goofy Talk: II
Speech and writing at work are sometimes little more than high falutin' goofy talk, filled with puff phrases of unknown meaning and pretentious, tired images. Here's Part II of a collection of phrases and images to avoid.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Effective Communication at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The Jolly RogerComing August 22: Dealing with Credit Appropriation
Very little is more frustrating than having someone else claim credit for the work you do. Worse, sometimes they blame you if they get into trouble after misusing your results. Here are three tips for dealing with credit appropriation. Available here and by RSS on August 22.
RMS Titanic departing Southampton on April 10, 1912And on August 29: Please Reassure Them
When things go wildly wrong, someone is usually designated to investigate and assess the probability of further trouble. That role can be risky. Here are three guidelines for protecting yourself if that role falls to you. Available here and by RSS on August 29.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenoLNwNpWyVuknqROQner@ChacgHEHcFDIvhzsUTHaoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
Reader Comments About My Newsletter
A sampling:
  • Your stuff is brilliant! Thank you!
  • You and Scott Adams both secretly work here, right?
  • I really enjoy my weekly newsletters. I appreciate the quick read.
  • A sort of Dr. Phil for Management!
  • …extremely accurate, inspiring and applicable to day-to-day … invaluable.
  • More
52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around.
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
Comprehensive collection of all e-books and e-bookletsSave a bundle and even more important save time! Order the Combo Package and download all ebooks and tips books at once.