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

Dangerous Phrases

by

Last updated: July 18, 2019

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!

People Skills: How to Assert Yourself, Listen to Others, and Resolve Conflicts For 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.

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An onion, sliced and dicedComing December 11: The Rhyme-as-Reason Effect
When we speak or write, the phrases we use have both form and meaning. Although we usually think of form and meaning as distinct, we tend to assess as more meaningful and valid those phrases that are more beautifully formed. The rhyme-as-reason effect causes us to confuse the validity of a phrase with its aesthetics. Available here and by RSS on December 11.
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As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.

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