Foul phrases

A few weeks ago I spoke with Annette Marner on her ABC Afternoons radio show about turning foul phrases that invite resentment into magic phrases that invite cooperation. I reckon there are twelve categories of foul phrases, the first being the kind your mother made you wash your mouth out with soap for saying!

Another category is the Yes, but and Yes, however…. When people hear those phrases, they know bad news is coming. When you substitute the ‘but‘ with an ‘and‘ your message becomes much more acceptable. You did a good job on that but … becomes You did a good job on that and … (one way to really polish it up might be too …)

Negative foul phrases are the third category. Just as words reveal our thoughts, they also lead our thoughts, and that’s why it’s important to choose positive words and phrases over negative words and phrases; doing that turns them into magic phrases. I can’t do that until next week becomes I can do that next week.

Other foul phrases are emotive and offensive and put people off side. Much better to be objective and clear, which makes your comments easier for people to take on board. Your work is careless becomes Your work is often inaccurate.

The next two types of foul phrases invite our minds to wander. You can make passive phrases like The policy was discussed by the committee less officious by making them active: The committee discussed the policy.

Wordy phrases bring on the yawns, too: For the purpose of … (simply say to …); In the event that … (just say if); Take into consideration (just say consider). You get the picture, and if you don’t, check out pages 128 to 129 of the text.

Vague phrases leave people hanging. Don’t just say I’ll contact you; say how: I’ll Skype you, FaceTime you, email you, phone you …

Bureaucratic phrases like You are required to … (fill in this form) and You’ll have to … (fill in this form) invite the opposite of cooperation. Much better to make them less pushy and self-important with a bit of politeness: Would you please … (fill in this form) or As soon as you’ve filled in this form) I can … or I’ll need this form completed by Tuesday because …

Confrontative phrases are the ninth type of foul phrases. You should…; You never…; You always … create arguments. The trick here is to tell the person what you do want, not what you don’t want. So instead of You never clean up after yourself becomes Please tidy the kitchen area when you’ve finished your snack. That gets you far more cooperation. Or you could say From now on … or Next time … That’s also good when someone has done something you don’t want them to do again.

Pompous phrases like Further notification will follow are another type of foul phrase that people often use out of habit or because they think it somehow sounds impressive. Make them more human; you could say I’ll keep you informed.

The eleventh category is feeble phrases like I’l try to have it ready o Monday. People ignore the ‘try’ anyway, so you may as well commit to Monday yourself.

Finally come the why phrases. These are foul because they’re often heard as a challenge and make people defensive. So instead of asking Why did you do that? you might ask What led to your decision to do that?

Discussion questions

Are you in the habit of using any of those foul phrases in your workplace? Think of some examples of foul phrases you’ve used and some up with some more positive alternatives.