Warning: Four Strong Words that can Trigger Conflict

“Samantha” and “Matilda” were close colleagues.* They met for lunch once a week, and one day, Matilda told Samantha about an opportunity in another department that she was considering. This possibility became a major topic of conversation between them. Each week, they discussed the journey together as Matilda processed whether to apply, prepared for the interviews once she did apply, and made her decision after being offered the position (she took it.)

Samantha was sincerely pleased for Matilda, and was glad she’d still be able to have lunch with her regularly. But she confessed that Matilda’s processing journey had started to wear on her.  The hiring process was a long one, and Samantha sometimes couldn’t tell if Matilda wanted advice, a listening ear, or someone to challenge her with questions. Samantha did the best she could to be a friend and discern Matilda’s particular need at each lunch meeting, either listening or asking questions, or from time to time issuing a gentle challenge. And in the end, Matilda had sorted it out, and treated Samantha to lunch at an upscale restaurant to thank her for being there for her during that period of unsettledness.

Samantha grinned as she accepted Matilda’s thanks, since inside,  she’d been tempted more than once to be less than gracious. There were times when she wanted to say:

“Frankly (or) Honestly, you are driving me crazy.”  

“You are coming across as pretty unstable about this decision.”

“Just make a decision please!”

Samantha was glad she did not use those phrases, because each contains a word (or more) that triggers defensiveness.

Let’s look for the “trigger words” in each one.

Sentence 1:

Frankly – when you feel like you have to add “frankly” or “honestly” to a sentence, it probably means that you’re not convinced the receiver will agree with you. While sometimes, firm emphasis is needed (i.e. with a client or colleague who is consistently  not doing their part), more often conversations with colleagues will go better if you avoid adding emphasis words like this. It’s condescending.

Sentence 2:

You – of course you are going to use the word “you” in conversation. Just be aware of context. It’s far better to say, “I am sensing that you are feeling conflicted about the promotion” rather than “You certainly seem unstable about this decision.”  Even better? Ask a question. “How are you feeling about the promotion and the new responsibilities it will add?”

Unstable – be careful of the types of descriptor words you use regarding behavior. While they may be appropriate in certain contexts (i.e. a coaching/counseling relationship) colleagues should take great care when using words that can be interpreted as a “diagnosis” of someone’s mental state or emotional stability. (If you are truly concerned about a person’s mental health, there are better ways to address and intervene, perhaps involving the help of others.)

Sentence 3

Just – this word, like frankly, is often used for emphasis–to add punch. However it’s often not necessary to add it, and may come across with a tone of exasperation. If you find yourself using this word often, step back to see if there are frustrations that you need to deal with another way.

When conversing with others, steer clear of trigger words that could damage the relationship. Even if the frustration you are feeling is merited, there are better ways to help a friend or colleague process life and decisions. You may find that you need to reduce the amount of time you spend with that colleague, or have an intentional deep conversation about how to handle the relationship going forward. But for day-to-day dialog, watch for words that can cause unnecessary conflict.

And to be fair…the responsibility for healthy relationships goes both ways. While the subject of this post was words Samantha was wise to avoid using, Matilda should also take responsibility for being high maintenance and self-oriented as well.  Conflict is rarely one sided.


*My illustrations as presented should be considered fiction unless otherwise noted. While they may have elements based on personal experience or observations, my practice is to write in generalities in order to make the anecdotes relevant to a wide audience.


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