Choose your words

Learn how your choice of words can make any conversation more difficult.

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Language matters

Choosing your words carefully can help you avoid sounding dismissive, judgmental, argumentative or insensitive. This is important when you’re communicating with someone who’s anxious, distressed or upset. In these situations, you risk the individual shutting down, becoming defensive or getting upset. When you choose your words intentionally, you’re less likely to make things worse.

Fighting words

Certain words can contribute to positive interactions, and others cause negative reactions.

For example:

  • You... implies blame and fault
  • You always/never... implies a false generalization
  • You just don’t understand... can be seen as a harsh judgment or criticism
  • Calm down... dismisses the reason for the other person’s emotional state
  • Everyone says... can make the other person paranoid or concerned that others are talking about them
  • We noticed... the other person might wonder who “we” is and whether people are talking behind their back
  • Can’t you ever... feels condescending and patronizing
  • What’s the matter with you? may be especially difficult for those who already feel bad about themselves
  • I liked your report, but I didn’t like the summary... the “but” often negates whatever came before it

One example of ways to avoid fighting words is to rephrase “Calm down!” with “I can see this is upsetting. Would you like to find a quiet place to sit and talk?”

Learning to avoid fighting words is an on-going process. In the beginning, you’ll need to slow down and choose your words carefully. Over time, this approach will become much more natural and easier.

Common pitfalls

Each of the examples below explain some of the common mistakes we might make when responding to someone who’s emotionally distressed.

  • Minimize feelings. It can’t be as bad as you think 
    • This tends to discount the other person’s perspective and shut them down.
  • Offer advice. If I were you, I would do...
    • This keeps the other person from finding their own solution and makes you accountable for the outcome.
  • Bombard with questions. Why do you think he said that? Did you ask about…? 
    • When someone may already engage in chronic internal questioning and self-doubt, this approach can be overwhelming.
  • That’s just the way it is. Life is like that, just accept it 
    • This approach may remove hope in a time of vulnerability.
  • Pointing out the other side. Jane probably just meant… 
    • Even though you may be trying to provide perspective, the individual might think you’re not siding with them.
  • Poor you. You poor thing, that’s so hard 
    • This can reinforce victim mentality and/or learned helplessness.
  • Armchair therapist. Do you think it’s related to the fact that she looks like your mother? 
    • You never know when you might trigger underlying issues.

To avoid these mistakes, focus on understanding the other person’s situation, rather than analyzing it. This means you’re trying to understand their perspective by asking them to share it with you.

Open-ended questions

Though you should express empathy for their emotions, you don’t need to agree or disagree with what they’re trying to tell you. Stay on track by asking open-ended questions in a non-judgmental, non-threatening and positive way and being curious about how they describe their situation.

  • Can we explore...[what you are thinking, feeling or wanting to happen]
  • Help me to understand...[what would make this better for you, how I can help]
  • I would really like to better understand...[why you feel this way, how this is affecting you now, what you feel should be next steps]]
  • Tell me more...[about what you feel would be a good solution to this situation]
  • Would you be open to sharing [your thoughts, feelings or ideas about what we are discussing]

Seek clarification

Don’t assume you understand the other person’s meaning, even if you can repeat exactly what they said. When we’re distressed, it’s not always easy to say what we mean. When you ask the individual to clarify what they mean, you give them the opportunity to rephrase or rethink what they shared with you. These are some ways you can seek clarification:

  • This is what I understand...
  • Let me know if I am on track...
  • Here’s what I see (the facts as you know them – not opinion)

Additional resources

Body language awareness. Effective communication isn’t limited to the words we say. Our non-verbal communication includes body language, tone of voice, eye contact and facial expressions.

Communicating with clarity. Learn how to adjust the intensity with which you communicate to improve your ability to clearly get your message across.

Emotional triggers. When we’re triggered, our reactions may be difficult for us and others to handle. Learn how recognizing your reactions to emotional triggers can help you plan how to address different situations.

Monitor your impact on others. Your mood affects others, whether you wish it to or not.  Strengthen your relationships by being aware of your impact on others.

Contributors include.articlesMary Ann BayntonWorkplace Strategies team 2007-2021

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