By Steve Kelman

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What not to say

man and woman in conversation at seminar (sirtravelalot/Shutterstock.com)

As some blog readers know, I am a fan of a daily email I get from Harvard Business Review called The Daily Alert. It is a great source of practical management advice, often written by business school professors and citing academic literature to back up points being made. I am just reading a new issue with an article titled Words and phrases to avoid when having a tough conversation, by Jim Detert, a business professor at the University of Virginia Darden School.

We live in a time when people are more sensitive to words than ever. I will confess that I believe people tend to be too sensitive and often over-react, producing tension that isn't really necessary or appropriate. But this is a fact of life, and we need to take it into account and to be careful about our words.

Detert gives a number of examples of phrases to avoid. My favorite was "It's not personal" (or "Don't take this personally"). "When someone is hurt, angry, or otherwise clearly affected by something you've said or done, telling them it's not personal only adds insult to injury. If you actually care, why not acknowledge and own that it is personal to them, even if not to you?"

A second example Detert warns against is the use the word "clearly" or "obviously" to describe your point of view. "When your words (inadvertently) suggest that any divergent views are stupid or inconsequential, others may feel railroaded or insulted. If you've really made your case persuasively, there's no need to potentially derail the outcome by stating your own views about how obvious or beyond a doubt something is."

A third wise piece of advice is: "Don't challenge someone's character or integrity." This is particularly important in a culture where challenging the bona fides of those with whom we disagree has become very common: 

"You may feel that what someone has done is 'unprofessional,' 'wrong,' or 'unethical.' But, if you use words like these, there's a good chance the target will become defensive. Humans have a strong need to see themselves as decent and moral. If you describe their problematic behavior in ways that threaten their core sense of self then the person is more likely to shift from the issue at hand to a defense of their character."

"Instead, try starting with phrases that only question if or convey something is undesirable or sub-optimal. Suggest that missing deadlines 'detracts from our mission' rather than labeling it 'unprofessional,' or that changing numbers to make your unit's performance look better is 'inconsistent with our core values,' rather than calling it 'wrong' or 'unethical.'"

One more piece of advice is "Don't tell others what they should do." Detert writes: "Telling someone what they should do contains an implicit value judgment... People feel judged by 'should' statements — as if they wouldn't come to the right conclusion without your input — when they'd prefer to decide for themselves what to do. Phrases like, 'You might consider' or 'One possibility is' or 'Have you thought of?' increase your odds of having the conversation and influence you seek."

Many of us are familiar with the sensitivity these days of phrases and expressions surrounding race and gender, and we know how we can get into real trouble with phrases we might consider innocent but for some are major sources of offense. One thing I learned from Detert's discussion is that this can apply not just to political and social hot buttons but to less-charged everyday contexts. The message is: Be careful.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Jul 01, 2021 at 1:47 PM


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