Words that Unintentionally Bring Out Our Worst

Grrrrr! 2As we’re crafting the second course in our new curriculum – Catalytic Listening – we have been talking about creating “cheat sheets” as reminders. One of those sheets will include a list of words and phrases that inadvertently not only fail to bring out the best in ourselves and others, they actually bring out the worst in both parties and the situation overall.

Those words and phrases tend to fall into two categories. If the definitions below aren’t quite clear, you’ll get the gist as we begin listing them.
Aggressive language – language that, by the very words, pushes people away (and that’s not bringing out the best in anyone!)
• Advice language – language, often in the form of a question, that is all about what we would do if we were in the other person’s shoes (which – duh – we are not – they are in their shoes. And again, that can’t possibly bring out the best in either you or them!).

In preparing for our next meeting, what better place than here at the blog to begin listing those words and phrases, so that we can keep adding to it as we craft this class.

I’ll get us started. Please add in your own words and phrases to either / both of these lists.

Aggressive Language
• Allow me to play devil’s advocate for a moment
• I want to challenge you on that, if I might
• I need to push back on that a bit.

Advice Language
• Here’s what I would do
• Can I offer some constructive criticism?
• Are you open for some honest feedback?
• Have you thought of  ____?
• Have you done _____? 
• What if you did _______?
• You know what you should do? (Often said as a joke, with something supposedly absurd as the answer)

As you add your own words and phrases to this list, you may be wondering what to do instead. The first step is to be aware of what happens when you use such language in your own life. Do people pull away, grimace, get defensive? Use that as an indicator that despite the fact that you probably meant well and likely care deeply about the other person’s well-being, that in fact, your approach brought out the worst in that person, and likely created ripples that may also have brought out the worst in you. 

From there, there are a whole range of practices for bringing out the best in others and ourselves – which is what Catalytic Thinking is all about. That first step, though – the noticing – it is an ongoing practice, in life, at work, and everywhere we be.

We look forward to seeing what you guys come up with!

7 thoughts on “Words that Unintentionally Bring Out Our Worst”

  1. Hildy, thanks for offering this challenge. Some initial thoughts:
    • The ‘aggressive language’ and ‘advice language’ categories can indeed bring out the worst
    • Other categories that aren’t necessarily implicit in either of those categories might include ‘discounting language’ and ‘polarizing language’ have also demonstrated a wondrous capacity to bring out the worst in others
    • I believe that words by themselves are only part of the story. The context surrounding the words can be the difference that makes the difference
    • I wonder if a ‘cheat sheet’ of words and phrases that show respect and/or reflect appreciation might not be a potent complement to your list, e.g., I learned from Marilyn that framing any request with “Would you be willing…” is always a winner
    • Most all organizational cultures I’ve worked with are appreciation-deprived. Elegantly simple authentic in-the-moment agenda-free appreciation is magically generative for both the receiver and the giver — catalytic plus 🙂

  2. I’ve done a whole blog on aggressive language that reduces people’s ability to find their own answers and implement their own solutions. See http://blog.garthsonleadership.ca/three-words-i-no-longer-use/ about Problem, Need and Weakness. I would add “Since I’m the expert…” as an extremely effective way to shut down innovative ideas or just other ways of looking at a situation, and “should” to put people’s backs up as they hear advice.

  3. Similarly – ‘best practices’ – best for whom?

    A lot of it really does come down to assumptions. Assuming someone does know what they’re doing; assuming they DON’t know what they’re doing. Assuming they haven’t thought something through already. Assuming they haven’t tried xyz — or assuming that they HAVE tried xyz.

    Something that triggers frustration in me is when I get asked to fix a problem that I think they should be able to figure out. Or their assumption is that I know the way to fix it, when I’m really only slightly less clueless than they are. e.g., fixing someone’s computer problems because I look like I know what I’m doing. Or being asked ‘what should I do about this situation with my boss?’ by someone who is 6000 miles away, in a job I’ve never had, working for a company I’ve never worked for, and with people I’ve never met.

    So to make it useful for us to recognize in others, perhaps the trigger is being asked a question that I feel I ought to know the answer to, but I don’t. Can we stop making assumptions about others’ abilities and knowledge and experience?

  4. I understand (and embrace!) the concept of using words and phrases that bring out the best (thinking/ responses/ connections) in ourselves and others. I’m less sure about identifying up front those “bringing out the worst in people” — since I associate “the worst” with someone being intentionally negative (e.g., hostile, belittling, impatient, intentionally confusing/confounding, etc.). That’s an easy list to create. The more challenging (for me, anyway) is knowing how to balance staying true to the catalytic language against being responsive to the needs of the other person(s) — for example, good catalytic listening emphasizes the “you” instead of the “I” — but there are times when careful use of an “I” or “I would” statement can be grounding and reassuring to our students/collaborators who aren’t yet fully immersed in the catalytic framework. Also, we can infer based on our experience (but can’t always be sure about) which words trigger which reactions in others. I’d like to approach this task from the perspective of what tends to work best in furthering (positive) catalytic responses, what tends to work less well, and what tends to stop it in its tracks — a slightly “softer” approach to our list making. I very much value the catalytic framework for the space and flexibility it gives me to meet others “where they are” ( as well as for the discipline it helps provide for my own listening and thinking). Thanks for reading this far!

  5. “It’s in your best interest…”
    – Coming from the person giving advice is the message that “I know best,” which leads to dissecting the word “best” – what is best? Whatever thoughts the advice seeker has, it will never be as “good” as what the advice sharer lines out.
    – And, if you don’t follow the advice, you clearly are going to screw things up and miss the opportunity.
    – And it is all about YOU singular, but there’s a good chance there are other human beings connected to whatever this may be. Focus on the individual with no context nor connection to people that the outcome will also impact. Missing the whole story and only seeing a little slice.

    “Buck up,” or “shake it off,” or “calm down,” or “take the high road, ” or “why can’t you just stop doing that/going there/fill in the blank…” are all forms of advice. It is measuring whatever I think you are dealing with as no big deal, or you are making a big issue over nothing, or no emotions are allowed in this conversation. (When the person saying these commands is actually often the one elevating all emotions.)


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