Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 5, Issue 28;   July 13, 2005: Hurtful Clichés: I

Hurtful Clichés: I

by

Much of our day-to-day conversation consists of harmless clichés: "How goes it?" or "Nice to meet you." Some other clichés aren't harmless, but they're so common that we use them without thinking. Maybe it's time for some thought.

The force of Evan's voice brought Doug back from his reverie, and mentally he played back Evan's last words. They were: "What do I have to say to get through to you people?" The meeting was now completely silent. Not everyone was as self-assured as Doug, who was now certain that some were actually frightened.

Some clichés
are both painful
to hear and
very easy to say
'Sure enough,' Doug thought, 'he's lost it again.'

Evan has employed phrasing we've heard many times, beginning in childhood. It's an example of what I call a hurtful cliché — a phrase or construct that hurts, but which is also so common that we use it without thinking.

We have dozens of hurtful clichés. Not only are they painful to hear, but they also harm the speaker by threatening conversational cooperation. Here's a little catalog of some of the more common hurtful clichés. See "Hurtful Clichés: II," Point Lookout for July 27, 2005, for more.

Did it ever occur to you that X?
Heard as: You idiot — if you thought about it for even a second you would have realized X.
Instead of disparaging the listener, try stating your belief about X directly.
Didn't you hear what I just said?
You worthless piece of trash!Heard as: I'm so important that you should attend to my every word. And if you were listening, you have no right to an independent opinion.
This question is usually rhetorical. Instead, try inquiring about the listener's views. You might learn something that would help you find convergence.
What were you thinking?
Heard as: If you don't see things the way I do, you're a brainless fool!
Another rhetorical question. If you really care about the listener's perspective, just ask, "How do you view this situation?" Or give information about yourself: "I look at things a little differently — I see X." Or if it's obvious a mistake was made, how about a simple, "Oops."
What part of X wasn't clear?
Also: What part of X didn't you understand?
Heard as: You're an idiot.
Here, X is usually monosyllabic, like "No." This was funny for the first month or two that it went around the world. Now it's just abusive.
Usually, this question isn't actually seeking information. Better to be silent.
Hey, cool your jets.
Also: Hey chill; Settle down, now; Relax
Heard as: You're out of control.
Some clichés sting
but we use them
so often that
we forget how
much they hurt
Educating others about stress management might be OK if they come to you seeking such advice. Otherwise, it can seem patronizing and offensive.
Instead, try modeling serenity yourself. It's contagious.
Anybody have a problem with that?
Heard as: I dare you to disagree.
Only the foolhardy or those feeling powerful would respond in the affirmative. This inquiry can be restated in a less intimidating style: "Is everyone OK with that?"

If you make a collection of hurtful clichés you use yourself, you'll use them less often — if you have half a brain, that is. Er, uh, I mean, collecting them makes you more aware of them, and if you're more aware, you're less likely to use them. Sorry about that.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Devious Political Tactics: Divide and Conquer, Part II  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!

We sometimes use clichés as a means of achieving indirectness; indeed, that's one reason why phrases become clichés. For more on indirectness see "The True Costs of Indirectness," Point Lookout for November 29, 2006.

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When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.

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