Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 5, Issue 28;   July 13, 2005: Hurtful Clichés: I

Hurtful Clichés: I

by

Much of our day-to-day conversation consists of harmless clichés: "How goes it?" or "Nice to meet you." Some other clichés aren't harmless, but they're so common that we use them without thinking. Maybe it's time for some thought.

The force of Evan's voice brought Doug back from his reverie, and mentally he played back Evan's last words. They were: "What do I have to say to get through to you people?" The meeting was now completely silent. Not everyone was as self-assured as Doug, who was now certain that some were actually frightened.

Some clichés
are both painful
to hear and
very easy to say
'Sure enough,' Doug thought, 'he's lost it again.'

Evan has employed phrasing we've heard many times, beginning in childhood. It's an example of what I call a hurtful cliché — a phrase or construct that hurts, but which is also so common that we use it without thinking.

We have dozens of hurtful clichés. Not only are they painful to hear, but they also harm the speaker by threatening conversational cooperation. Here's a little catalog of some of the more common hurtful clichés. See "Hurtful Clichés: II," Point Lookout for July 27, 2005, for more.

Did it ever occur to you that X?
Heard as: You idiot — if you thought about it for even a second you would have realized X.
Instead of disparaging the listener, try stating your belief about X directly.
Didn't you hear what I just said?
You worthless piece of trash!Heard as: I'm so important that you should attend to my every word. And if you were listening, you have no right to an independent opinion.
This question is usually rhetorical. Instead, try inquiring about the listener's views. You might learn something that would help you find convergence.
What were you thinking?
Heard as: If you don't see things the way I do, you're a brainless fool!
Another rhetorical question. If you really care about the listener's perspective, just ask, "How do you view this situation?" Or give information about yourself: "I look at things a little differently — I see X." Or if it's obvious a mistake was made, how about a simple, "Oops."
What part of X wasn't clear?
Also: What part of X didn't you understand?
Heard as: You're an idiot.
Here, X is usually monosyllabic, like "No." This was funny for the first month or two that it went around the world. Now it's just abusive.
Usually, this question isn't actually seeking information. Better to be silent.
Hey, cool your jets.
Also: Hey chill; Settle down, now; Relax
Heard as: You're out of control.
Some clichés sting
but we use them
so often that
we forget how
much they hurt
Educating others about stress management might be OK if they come to you seeking such advice. Otherwise, it can seem patronizing and offensive.
Instead, try modeling serenity yourself. It's contagious.
Anybody have a problem with that?
Heard as: I dare you to disagree.
Only the foolhardy or those feeling powerful would respond in the affirmative. This inquiry can be restated in a less intimidating style: "Is everyone OK with that?"

If you make a collection of hurtful clichés you use yourself, you'll use them less often — if you have half a brain, that is. Er, uh, I mean, collecting them makes you more aware of them, and if you're more aware, you're less likely to use them. Sorry about that.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Devious Political Tactics: Divide and Conquer, Part II  Next Issue

We sometimes use clichés as a means of achieving indirectness; indeed, that's one reason why phrases become clichés. For more on indirectness see "The True Costs of Indirectness," Point Lookout for November 29, 2006.

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenYnSqtnWikVNoeIYWner@ChacxElkwbwDModnNXhaoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Bullying:

Gary Jones, Oklahoma State Auditor and InspectorWhen the Chair Is a Bully: III
When the Chair of the meeting is so dominant that attendees withhold comments or slant contributions to please the Chair, meeting output is at risk of corruption. Because Chairs usually can retaliate against attendees who aren't "cooperative," this problem is difficult to address. Here's Part III of our exploration of the problem of bully chairs.
Palm trees blowing in a hurricaneDealing with Rapid-Fire Attacks
When a questioner repeatedly attacks someone within seconds of their starting to reply, complaining to management about a pattern of abuse can work — if management understands abuse, and if management wants deal with it. What if management is no help?
A vervet monkey (Chlorocebus pygerythrus) in TanzaniaSee No Bully, Hear No Bully
Supervisors of bullies sometimes are unaware of bullying activity in their organizations. Here's a collection of indicators for supervisors who suspect bullying but who haven't witnessed it directly.
The Town Hall of Brighton, England, in 2010Social Isolation and Workplace Bullying
Social isolation is a tactic widely used by workplace bullies. What is it? How do bullies use it? Why do bullies use it? What can targets do about it?
Feeling shameShame and Bullying
Targets of bullies sometimes experience intense feelings of shame. Here are some insights that might restore the ability to think, and maybe end the bullying.

See also Workplace Bullying, Emotions at Work and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The end of the line for a railroad trackComing May 30: Chronic Peer Interrupters: I
When making contributions to meeting discussions, we're sometimes interrupted. Often, the interruption is beneficial and saves time. But some people constantly interrupt their peers or near peers, disrespectfully, in a pattern that compromises meeting outcomes. How can we deal with chronic peer interrupters? Available here and by RSS on May 30.
Mohandas K. Ghandi, in the 1930sAnd on June 6: Chronic Peer Interrupters: II
People use a variety of tactics when they're interrupted while making contributions in meetings. Some tactics work well, while others carry risks of their own. Here's Part II of a little survey of those tactics. Available here and by RSS on June 6.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenDnabDdWdsBxgUlyDner@ChacLiLQyIwDXozYgPrzoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

Technical Debt Management: Making the Business Case
This Technical Debt Management: Making the Business Caseprogram outlines the steps necessary for deploying a program for rational management of technical debt. For many organizations, adopting a program for rationally managing technical debt entails organizational change. And unlike some organizational changes, this one touches almost everyone in the organization, because technical debt isn't merely a technical problem. Technical debt manifests itself in technological assets, to be sure, but its causes are rarely isolated to the behavior and decisions of engineers. We can't resolve the problem of chronically excessive levels of technical debt by changing the behavior of engineers alone. Technical debt is the symptom, not the problem. In this program we outline the essential elements of an effective business case for adopting a rational technical debt management program. But this business case, unlike many business cases, cannot be captured in a document. We must make the case not only at the leadership level of the organization, but also at the level of the individual contributor. Everyone must understand. Everyone must contribute. We explore five issues that make technical debt so difficult to manage, and develop five guidelines for designing technical debt management strategies for the modern enterprise. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: The Power of Agile Development
On 14The Race to the Pole: An Application of Agile Development December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. Lessons abound. Among the more important lessons are those that demonstrate the power of the agile approach to project management and product development. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.