Triggering Words and Phrases You Should Avoid to Communicate Better

‘Because I Said So…’. 

Probably the most flammable fuel for a fire of frustration an 11-year-old can ever experience. Ah, the triggering words. 

Hand holding a match starting the camp fire

We’ve all been there – ‘you can’t go outside today’, ‘but why?’, ‘because I said so’. Parents use this phrase because it’s impossible to argue with. It provides such a lack of legitimate reasoning that there is actually nothing you can say in response. If you’ve got the guts, try saying this to someone your own age, or just imagine how that would go.

If it were me, I think I’d be so taken aback by the use of this phrase that I’d probably just go ahead and do it. On second thought… probably best to leave that one to the imagination. It has quite a high potential to go south on you. 

‘Because I said so’, is what we’d refer to as a trigger phrase or triggering words. One that sparks frustration in the recipient, creates a defensive demeanor, and generally doesn’t solve any problems. Being told this phrase as a child is something we can all agree was up there with the most frustrating things you could hear. In fact, it still is, we just don’t hear it nearly as much in later life. I’d even bet there are a few parents reading this that have used exactly this phrase on their kids and we understand why.

Sometimes you just need something done, or need the pestering to stop, or are just fed up with being questioned. It’s more than understandable, but there are substitute phrases that achieve the same outcome in a much less frustrating way. 

Now, this article is absolutely not a lesson in parenting. I mean, an eighteen-year-old, giving advice on parenting, no thanks. Even I’d disregard advice from someone who has, quite literally, zero experience in the field. This particular phrase simply encompasses such a vast array of relatable anecdotes not to bring up. I’ll move on now. 

Triggering Phrases

Similar to ‘because I said so’, there are a few specific combinations of words that can ignite serious irritation in recipients thereof. Thinking back, what are some times that your colleague, manager, or supervisor have said something that really sent you off the deep end. We all know it. Phrases that send us into the quiet mumbling state of frustration that we have no choice but to endure quietly at our desks.

Of course, this situation takes many forms depending on your role and workplace. At the end of the day, we’ve all been there. Even the manager that used that oh-so-irritating phrase has had one similar said to them before, and it annoyed them equally as much. So, why do we continue to use them? More on that, specifically, later. 

‘Calm Down…’ The Phrase That Achieves Exactly the Opposite of its Intention

Man holding up hands to calm down woman on video call

Let’s set the scene. You’ve run into an issue at work and are getting increasingly frustrated with something that simply will not work in your favour. It happens to the best of us. Quite often, in fact. Whatever the scene looks like in your head, you go to a colleague or manager who, before anything else, says to you ‘OK, let’s just calm down for a second.’ in response to your (probably quite emotional) explanation of the problem.

Probably accompanied by those eyes that bore a hot fiery hole in your head as you’re told, as a full-grown, self-sufficient, rational adult to ‘calm down’. Can you feel the frustration boiling? I definitely can. We can all picture those eyes… and the little head tilt that comes with them. 

The reason this phrase makes things so much worse is that being told to ‘calm down’ is an accurate equivalent of; ‘your reaction to the situation is ill-founded and you must proceed to act like an adult because adults don’t get frustrated over small things. Stop being a child now.’ Now, this is very rarely the intention of the person saying it. They simply are unaware that the two words they’re saying are being received as many more words that are all the opposite of what the recipient wanted to hear. 

A Useful Substitute

‘Right, that does sound annoying. Show me exactly what you’re dealing with and let’s work it through together.’ Words to this effect will quickly deflate the balloon of frustration, extinguish the fire, and shift the focus of both parties onto solving problems, rather than creating them. 

‘Because That’s the Rules…’ The Phrases That Dodge Questions Because There is Clearly no Legitimate Answer

This one is tough because it brings us all back to being children. Being treated like a child is one of the most frustrating things as an adult, especially in the workplace, where your contributions are supposed to be respected. 

It is a blatant cop-out, this phrase. Achieves nothing but ‘batting off’ its recipient. Yes, as the manager that uses this phrase, you can move on having provided an answer that cannot be argued with. You’re guaranteed to walk away with no further questions. Problem solved. Well, actually no, problem created. Your employee is now irritated, and no further forward. Not a great outcome. 

A Useful Substitute

Your employee suggests that the way you file incoming CVs is tedious and unnecessary. ‘Why must it be done this way? I feel it could be more efficient another way.’ An intelligent question most would agree. ‘Because that’s the rules…’ What? OK great, thanks. Absolutely nothing has been solved and the employee must use the old, inefficient method. The method was tedious and unnecessary, and is both of those things but with a distinct lack of justification as to why they’re doing it. 

Scrabble tiles spelling out Rewrite the Rules

‘I know it’s not the best way of doing things and I’d like to try and change it as much as you would. For now, let’s continue this way and we’ll work together on coming up with an alternative next week.’ Boom – all boxes ticked. Watch your employees work faster and harder now. 

‘What’s Your Problem?’ The ‘UNO-reverse’ Card That Achieves Nothing

It makes people feel stupid, forces people to admit there is a problem, it all roots back to being treated like children. Awful.

By using this phrase, you simply hit ‘undo’ and put the problem back onto the person asking for assistance. Ultimately, they came to you with an issue. Something that needs to be solved. What you’ve done is force them to admit that they cannot do something. This was already clear, it took them a fair amount of pride-swallowing to ask you in the first place. Don’t then make them do it again. It doesn’t achieve anything. 

A Useful Substitute

‘How can I help?’. This phrase is like fairy dust. Sprinkle a little ‘how can I help?’ onto any problematic situation and you’re pretty much golden. In fact, if you can’t remember the useful substitutes, have this as a blanket statement. It’ll put a mental smile on anybody’s mind. 

We say these phrases, mostly, for ease and efficiency. Not to be an irritating wotsit. However, when using them, you’re being an irritating wotsit. Which you already knew, because you know how it feels to receive those phrases. It just so happens that we rarely manage to put two and two together. The slight bit of extra thinking is vastly worth it. The age-old concept – a little time now saves a lot of time later. 

Triggering Words

Triggering words are similar to trigger phrases. I don’t think I need to explain the nuances of these two and how they differ. Pretty self-explanatory. The triggering words I will be covering come in three categories; ‘Absolutes’, ‘Orders’ and ‘Uncertains’. Each of these categories have their own examples. Each one causes a different reaction. 

Absolutes

The example words for this category are ‘Always’, ‘Never’ and ‘Constantly’. Let’s break down why these words are triggering. 

Never say never scrabble letters word on a blue background

The concrete nature of these kinds of words creates immediate defensiveness in the recipient. These words offer no exceptions, no get-outs, and no room for defence – which automatically makes us defensive. The use of absolutes is one we must be careful with. For example; ‘You’re always late to the office.’ This is an absolute that offers zero exceptions to the rule.

Here, it’s being suggested that this person has never been early or on-time for work. The chances of this being true are pretty low. Especially when the employee is still, in fact, employed. The immediate defensive response is ‘not always, I was 5 minutes early on Wednesday’. The point trying to be made about punctuality has completely lost credibility due to a stupid technicality. A technicality that was unnecessary to offer, and equally as unnecessary to act on. But neither party had a choice. Well, yes you do. 

A Useful Substitution

Instead of using absolutes, just be truthful. Yes, an absolute may exaggerate your point which reflects your emotions, but this is ineffective. ‘You’ve been late to work on more than a few occasions this month. Can you work to improve this as soon as possible, please?’. How do you defend that, if it’s true? You can have a simple conversation with no emotions clouding the outcome. Problem solved. 

Orders

You’re being asked to complete a task. Which of the following do you prefer hearing?

‘You need to have… done by the end of the day.’

Or

‘It’d be great if I could get that by the end of the day, please.’

Me too. The second one sets a challenge, provides a little motivation. The first… well now I don’t want to do it. And can promise you that if it’s done, it won’t be of nearly as high a standard as it would be if you’d have asked me nicely. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe I’m speaking on behalf of everyone here. 

Man pointing finger with pen in hand and background blurred

The real difference between these two phrases is the tone. It’s a real struggle to read that first sentence in an upbeat, motivating tone. Even when you force it to sound nicer, it feels odd. This is because the use of this ‘order’ word. ‘Need’ is immediately bossy. Similar words like ‘must’ and ‘should’ create the exact same reaction.

 Stick to motivating language. 

Uncertains

Try, maybe, perhaps. All of these are ‘uncertain’ words. They are the opposite of ‘absolute’ words. Whilst these are too concrete, leaving no room for exceptions, ‘uncertains’ are just as useless, leaving no room for concrete takeaways. No, I’m not talking about getting a brick from the local Chinese. Concrete takeaways are things you can go and utilise, practice, and work at. Uncertain words provide none of this. 

‘Can you try and sort this out for me please?’

‘I mean, yeah, I can try. No promises it’ll work but, then again, you haven’t asked for that. As long as I’ve tried, I’ve done what you asked. Box ticked.’

Is this what you wanted when you asked someone to try and help? No, you were simply trying to avoid using ‘absolutes’ or ‘orders’ that you believe sound too harsh. What you did say, though, promoted a lack of commitment, created doubt, and focused on what may or may not be achieved. All the wrong messages sent. 

Now, I’ve clearly raised the paradox here. Too much in some words, too little in others. How on earth are we supposed to get this right? The answer is that it’s not about finding a sweet spot between too much and too little. It is about ditching these triggering words and phrases entirely for better substitutes. 

A Useful Substitute

The substitute for this is basically moving to provide solidified responses. ‘Maybe it’ll happen’ turns into ‘I’m actually not sure right now, but I’ll find out and get back to you.’ So. Much. Better. 

Think Back to Your Childhood

The overall key with triggering words is to cast your mind back to being told ‘because I said so…’ and really feel how triggering that phrase really was. 

Angry little girl with head on arms sat at a wooden table

Alternatively, think back to a time where your frustration was at an all-time high and someone smoothly told you to ‘calm down’ or ‘take a breath’. Fist – to – face. Or rather that was the scene that played out in your head. 

Thinking back to times like these when faced with similar situations with triggering words will bring your communication skills on leaps and bounds. It will also bring office conflict down significantly, especially if your whole workforce thinks this way. In this case, you definitely won’t need to read our article on conflict management. Hey, it’s there just in case ;).

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