After 15 years of coaching and working in the field of inter-personal communication, I’ve found there are some words and phrases that need to be cut from our language usage altogether. That is, unless your goal is to piss someone off. All of these are guaranteed to shut down effective communication.
“BUT” This is probably the number one offender. “But” statements usually start off really nice (i.e. “you are doing a really great job”), they use flowery language and seek to pacify the unknowing recipient of the coming critique. And then it comes: “BUT, lately I’ve noticed your work is really sloppy.” Ahh, the real message is sent!
The problem is that it is a mixed message and the receiver of the message is usually angered by how they were suckered in. The receiver doesn’t know which part of the message to attend to: Am I pretty good usually? Or do I really suck right now? Either way, it is not a conversation starter, it is almost always a conversation staller!
INSTEAD: Try to send clear messages always and avoid the mixed-up one/two punch. So deliver one message at a time when possible. If you do need to give somewhat mixed feedback, replace “But” with “And.” Example: You’ve been doing a really great job AND lately I’ve noticed your work isn’t at your normal standard.
“YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND ME” It rolls off the tongue so easily doesn’t it? It just feels so good, as it places all responsibility on the receiver of the message. I mean, after all, haven’t you been picture-perfect in your explanation? The problem is that communication is a team effort and if one of you fails, then you both do!
If your goal is to truly be successful in your interactions with others, take all the responsibility and accountability that you can for communication. You are the only person you can control, so take it! Switch “YOU” and “ME” around: “I don’t understand YOU.”
INSTEAD: An even better way to handle this is to get more specific: “I didn’t make myself clear, let me try to explain myself better” or “I think I miscommunicated, how can I explain myself better?”
“I UNDERSTAND HOW YOU FEEL” This is dangerous, really dangerous! It usually comes with good intentions and a desire to express empathy, but it may not come across that way. The problem is that you may not have all the information and you may not understand what is going on beneath the surface. If they don’t feel that you understand how they feel, this statement can go nuclear.
Focus on the observable and objective behaviors, and avoid your subjective interpretations. By stating facts, you can invite them to explain the subtleties that you may not know. This sets the interaction up for success, as each of you explain your perspectives to one another.
INSTEAD: If you feel the desire to express empathy, let the other person know that you support him/her. Say something like: “I’d love to be supportive, please let me know how I can help.”
“AS I SAID BEFORE…” This one is just the same as saying “listen dummy, I already told you once, and I don’t want to have to say it again.” It usually comes late in a conversation when both parties are tired and frustrated with each other. This phrase makes it especially problematic to successful resolutions.
When you find yourself about to say it, you need to consider that maybe you are just cycling through the same things and you need to take a break. Or at the very least, drop this part of the statement and just restate your position again (as long as it is not the 13th time).
INSTEAD: If you are in a cycle but can’t move on without agreement, try replacing this statement. A couple phrases involve turning it into a question: “Would it help if I clarified?” or “I know I am restating, can I try again?” These both take more ownership of the dialogue.
“YOU ALWAYS” or “YOU NEVER” This one is a get out of jail free card for the other party. All they have to do is find one time that they did or didn’t and BOOM…now they can prove you wrong! Game, set, and match!
These phrases also alienate people, as they lead them to believe that you don’t see any of the good things they do. Focus on specific instances, cite examples and stick to a message they are likely to be willing to hear. Feedback is most effective when it is given in bite size chunks, rather than broad generalizations.
INSTEAD: If you do need to speak to a pattern of behavior, then call it just that; while avoiding absolutes. A replacement statement is “I’ve noticed that recently there has been a pattern that I’d like to understand better.” This can be followed with some probative questions, which will show your interest in better understanding the person.
TAKE AWAYS We can all use an overhaul on how we communicate. By noticing how language incites or minimizes conflict, we can set ourselves up for success in difficult situations. And when in doubt, replace declarative statements with questions. A good, strategically placed question can really propel a conversation forward and increase inter-personal understanding and commitment to one another.