I'm going to do something a bit different today, and ask you to consider joining with me as I ban three toxic phrases from my repertoire.  

Here's the genesis. A few years back, I was the executive editor of a digital media site, and a freelance writer turned in a thought-provoking article that has stuck with me all this time.

Her name is Leigh Anderson, and the article was this one: "The One Phrase I Wish We Could Ban From Mom Conversations."

I wasn't yet a parent at the time, but I immediately understood the reason she'd singled out the phrase in question.

"Can't you just"

Anderson talked about a single mom friend venting about how hard it was to get one kid ready for school in the morning while the other waited.

"Can't you just set out some crayons or crafty stuff?" another mom suggested. "That'll keep him busy." 

Another mom talked about how she wished she had enough time to make home-cooked dinners each night.

"Can't you just prep the meals on the weekends and then reheat them during the week?" someone suggested.

I wanted to yell: "Can't you just stop asking these poor moms all these unhelpful questions?"

I suspect that the "helpful mom friends" in these examples actually wanted to help. It wasn't a question of good intentions. It was a question of emotional intelligence.

Obvious and simple

A quick deconstruction of "Can't you just..." shows that it's normally used in response to someone else's articulation of a problem, but that the phrasing suggests that whatever brilliant idea you're going to propose next is both obvious and simple. 

That would mean that if the person you're talking to hasn't thought of this "obvious and simple solution" and implemented it, then he or she is to blame for the underlying problem.

And that in turn makes it almost impossible for him or her to be receptive to whatever you're suggesting next--even if it's the most brilliant advice possible. 

Of course, it's not the only phrase that communicates the exact opposite of the intended result. When I read my Inc.com colleague Justin Bariso's book, E.Q. Applied, a year or so ago, one of the phrases he cited as being exceptionally un-emotionally intelligent hit me like a tropical storm.

"I know how you feel (right?)"

You might say, "I know how you feel" intending to build a connection, but instead it builds a wall.

Nobody can truly understand exactly how someone else feels--but suggesting that you can quickly dismisses the other person's perception, and focuses the attention on yourself.

I know to some people this sounds like touchy-feely emotional pulp. But if you want to connect with people, communicate empathy, and even be a leader, it's worth the attention.

I have one more phrase that I'm trying to banish: It's basically any variation of when you ask someone a question intended to show you care, but then immediately follow it with a suggestion of what the "right" answer should be. 

Really, it's any variation of: "How's it going. Everything's great, right?"

"How's the family, doing well?"
"How was your first day of work, happy?"
"Everybody in your department has what they need, yes?"

Technically you're just asking, maybe. But the person you're talking to will often hear it as something more prescribed: "I'm going to ask you this, and you're going to answer that."

Support versus shift

Admittedly, I have the zeal of a convert on these linguistic habits. I can imagine some people I've known over the years reading this and saying, "That's rich, Murphy. You used to use these kinds of phrases all the time."

I probably did. But I've also come around to what sociologist Charles Derber suggests, and Celeste Headlee summarizes, is the difference between offering a "shift response" or a "support response."

A shift response is designed to shift the focus of a conversation away from another person and toward you.

A support response does the opposite. It shows that you're willing to sacrifice your need to be the center of attention (a need we all have sometimes), and instead let the other person share, vent, and even flat-out complain.

($34, if you can believe that)

This doesn't mean that you want to give a "support response" all the time, in every situation. 

I used to have an elderly neighbor. She's no longer with us so I'll leave the description at that--except to say that if you ran into her in the evening after she'd had a few drinks, she could be argumentative and even cruel.

Sometimes she'd complain to me about the kids in our building. I was more than happy to break out the ol' shift response, and go off on some intentionally boring non-sequitur about "my latest trip to the supermarket" or "how much I'd last paid for an oil change." 

Of course, I was being emotionally unintelligent--but it was 100 percent intentional. Most of the time, if you're well-intentioned, you intend the opposite.

The point here is to acknowledge that it's very difficult ever to put yourself in someone else's shoes. So, the better choice is just to demonstrate empathy.

You do that by showing that you're trying to understand--even if actually getting there 100 percent might be impossible. It's a shame to set out to do that but use the wrong kind of toxic language that undermines everything.

Published on: May 24, 2019
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.