Avoid Unnecessary Conflict by Using These Phrases Instead

In the workplace, we all hope to make people feel better when they surface concerns and issues. Our intent might be in the right place, but how we say things might have the opposite effect. Remember: the impact of what is said is more important than what we intended.  

I recently came across an article from CNBC: “Remove these 10 toxic phrases from your vocabulary, say career experts:  They’re ‘cold and belittling.” It made me wonder if I’d heard some of these phrases from individuals coming to the Ombuds Office. Sure enough, I’ve heard almost all ten in my nearly 20 years in the office. The good news? The authors, Adaira Landry and Resa E. Lewiss, promote more effective ways to professionally and respectfully convey that you care about what people are experiencing.  

  1.  “We’ve always done it this way.” This message implies you’re not open to other options or ways of doing things. Instead, you can say “We’ve always done it this way, [and perhaps it’s] time to change practices.”
  2. “Back in my day, we had it worse.” I’ve heard this phrase a lot on our health science campus, as we are trying to balance work and mental health. This phrase shuts the other person down and minimizes what they are sharing. Additionally, concerns should not be a contest as to who has suffered more. Here’s a better way to frame this: “Back in my day, we had it much worse, and I’m so glad it’s better for you. What can we change to make it even better?”
  3. “It’s best to keep our salary information private.” With this statement, transparency is not valued and you should expect some distrust in the office as a result. When faced with this conversation, a more effective way to say this might sound like, “It’s important to have open conversations about salary.”
  4. “We went with (X person) because they have more experience.” Not everyone has the same access to education, jobs, or opportunities. If we value experience over how motivated someone is or the potential they have, then diversity takes a hit. If we prioritize having a diverse workforce, a different way to address this would be to say, “(X person) has more experience and will have other opportunities. We went with (Y person) based on their strong potential.”  
  5. “We don’t have term limits.” The challenge with this statement is its implication that leadership is deserved and status quo is a value. While stability is often valued, Landry and Lewiss posit that culture change can spur on more diversity. Saying “we value giving everyone a turn. Individuals and organizations grow with rotating leadership,” sends the message that positions are not lifetime appointments. 
  6. “Can you document that incident in an email?” Implied in this request is that this email most likely won’t be confidential and could lead to retaliation. A more effective way to address this might be, “Let’s come up with wording that keeps you protected and focuses on the issue.”
  7. “(X person) didn’t mean what they said.” I’m imagining most of us have received this message before when raising problematic behavior – we feel dismissed and are certain nothing will be done. By minimizing what we have shared, the problematic behavior seems protected. A more supportive way of approaching this might sound like, “Thank you for sharing this. Let’s figure out a way to support you and address this behavior.”
  8. “I’m not feeling too well. But I’ll try to power through the day.” Certainly after the pandemic, we have relinquished our perceived badge of honor we thought we deserved by staying at work and infecting others. This message shows you don’t have much regard for your health as well as those around you. Instead, you can share, “I need to take it easy today, so I’m taking a sick day.”
  9. “Keep this between us, as it’s not my news to share.” If this isn’t your  news to share, you are gossiping. Period. You are also showing that information cannot be held privately with you and the ability to trust you might be compromised. If presented with such an issue, say instead, “It’s best for me to keep the information about them private. I recommend reaching out to them directly.”
  10. “Can you send it to me tonight?” Landry and Lewiss assert this is a boundary violation and shows the person doesn’t respect them. In our never-ending access to work, it’s easy to bleed into our personal lives, but all the more reason to avoid burning out and feeling resentful of work. A more effective way to address this issue could be, “Since the workday is over, we can pick this up tomorrow.”

Creating and maintaining a work culture that feels safe and respectful is always morphing and growing; however, it starts with awareness of how phrases can be harmful.  

By: Lisa Neale, Associate Director, University of Colorado Denver | Anschutz

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