How To Avoid Three Words In The Work Place That Trigger Defensive Reactions

by | May 17, 2016

exec_coach_blog_jan_07The depth of your communication skills as a manager or a business leader can often mean the difference between success and failure. Leadership communication training can make all the difference in helping you get this right. A coach will help you implement your training in real life situations so that you can make what you learned in your training relevant and actionable. A real life situation is always different than the “training” situation. A coach gives you an invaluable neutral party to brainstorm with as well as help you formulate a plan of action.

Resolving conflict, re–establishing organizational direction, and soliciting better performance are tough topics that require a careful approach and strategy for how you want your communications to flow. When approaching employees with sensitive topics, they may become defensive in the conversation and close their minds to new ideas, and any opportunity to meet your objectives quickly slips away.

How can you broach difficult subjects with direct reports or colleagues in a way that doesn’t incite defensive responses? By carefully planning the discussion, I suggest avoiding the use of the following three words: “why,” “but,” and “should.”

Word #1: “Why”

Imagine a meeting with a sales manager and a sales rep to discuss a valuable, longstanding account that’s going off track. The sales rep has fallen out of touch with the client, their orders have slowed, and the manager has just heard that the client is switching to a competitor. Even though “Why?” might be the #1 question in the sales manager’s mind, he or she should avoid using this word.

Many of us have strong, negative associations with the word “why” from our childhood and adolescent years. This word recalls memories of our parents, teachers and other authority figures, and friends challenging us to explain our deviant behavior.

The word “why” may trigger an immediate defensive mechanism that interferes with constructive progress rather than leading us into rational conversation. Depending on the circumstances and the personalities involved, these situations can rapidly deteriorate.


Instead, replace “why” with “How could …?” or “How would …?”


Asking “How could this have happened?” creates an opportunity for the other person in the conversation to respond without feeling like he or she is being personally attacked. A more rational discussion can help those affected by the situation discover new ways to solve problems. Another option is to ask, “How would you look at this situation?”

Word #2: “But”

The word “but” changes the context of any conversation. We use this word because we have unwelcome news to deliver. Rather than do so directly, we attempt to skirt or sugarcoat the unpleasant messages by loading the front end of our interaction with something positive.

Quite the opposite to making hard news easier to accept, using “but” can actually have the contrary effect, creating internal conflict, anxiety, and confusion for the listener. The effect of the word “but” in this situation can drive a conversation downhill very quickly and, depending on the extent to which it is actually insincere, appear to be somewhat manipulative.


Instead, replace “but” with “and.”


The next time you’re in a difficult conversation, be mindful of the word “but,” and try to replace it with “and.” This approach might require you to explain the rationale that supports your decision, so be prepared. You will have created an opportunity for effective listening.

Instead of, “We’ve done very well this quarter, but I can’t authorize this expense,” you can say, “We’ve done very well this quarter, and yet I still can’t authorize this expense because …”

Word #3: “Should”

Another word that can trap a leader is “should.” A conversation can quickly become troublesome when using this word because it indicates that the following messages are an opinion about the listener or about something in which he or she is involved. When a sentence begins with “they should” or “you should,” the listener knows that the speaker is about to offer an uninvited opinion. The listener may then shut down the communication and block the message from being delivered.


Instead, explore possibilities.


Instead of the word “should,” use a word or phrase that carries more of a “what if” concept. “Could you consider …” or “What would happen if you considered …?” are good options because they shift what’s being said in such a way that the person receiving the message has the opportunity to consider the message or not.

Business Lives In Language

There is a great deal of power associated with delivering messages appropriately. That is why leadership communication training can be life changing! When you choose words that move your objectives forward, you effectively simplify all of your business communications and streamline your conversations. This style of management maintains better, more productive relationships with your staff, allows you to leverage your time, and enables you to get more done in less time.

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