6 Psychologically Damaging Things to Say

An ongoing series where I share a “Business Playlist” of articles that made me think in the hope that you find them valuable also.

This week: 6 Psychologically damaging things parents (and managers) say.

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6 Psychologically Damaging Things Parents Say To Their Kids Without Realizing It

This article provides guidance for parents on how to be more conscious of the words they say to their children, so they can be empowering rather than disempowering. I don’t normally place much stock on “pop science” listicles like this, but it turned up in my Twitter feed, and after giving it a quick skim through I realized the recommendations were sound, and have direct equivalents to how managers speak to their direct reports. 

Here is my adapted take on the 6 “harmful things to say” outlined in the article, using a management context:

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Incorrect: “It’s not a big deal”

If a person seems upset, and we discount their emotional response, we are implicitly saying to them, “How you feel doesn’t matter” or “It’s silly to be upset.”

Better: “You seem (e.g. frustrated)? What’s up? How can I help?”

Your aim is to help the person accurately label their emotions and to make it clear that you’re there to support them.

Incorrect: “You never …” or “You always …”

Speaking in absolute statements can put people on the defensive. They will think about all the exceptions to your blanket statement and adopt an adversarial stance.

Better: “I noticed (undeniable fact). The story I am telling myself is (your interpretation of the fact). Is that right?” 

You want your description of the facts to be so accurate that the only option the person has is to agree with the facts and then provide their interpretation of what happened.

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Incorrect: “You make me (e.g. angry) when you do that.”

The person does not control your emotions, you do. I’m not saying you cannot express how you feel, but do so in a way where you take ownership of your feelings, rather than let a person think they can push your emotional buttons.

Better: “I feel angry. That behavior is not OK with me. Please don’t do that again.”

Own your emotions. Set clear boundaries to let people know where they stand with you. Be firm. Hold that boundary.

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Incorrect: “You should know better”

If someone makes a mistake, trying to shame them can put them on the defensive and cause resentment 

Better: “Looks like we’ve got a problem. What’s happening here? What do you suggest we do to fix it?”

Coach them to come up with solutions first. Then suggest others. Work together to come up with at least one tangible action they can take to fix their mistake (or prevent it from happening again in the future). I cover this type of situation in more depth in my article How to Hold People Accountable.

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Incorrect: “Just let me do it”

This is like saying, “You’re not good enough”, or “I don’t trust you” and can undermine a person’s confidence. 

Better: “Let’s do this one together. I’d like to train you how to do this yourself in the future”

As I wrote in my article When to Delegate, when delegating work to someone, chances are they will take longer than you did, especially in the early days while they are learning the skill and you are providing them with coaching and feedback. That’s normal. You invest the time to delegate and train now, to gain back more time and managerial leverage in the future.

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Incorrect: “You’re a (e.g. smart person)”

Labels can be self-fulfilling. If it is a negative label (e.g. “You are no good at math”), the person can become discouraged and give up trying to improve. If it is a positive label, (e.g. “You are smart”) the person can become scared to tackle difficult challenges in case they fail, and instead just play it safe in life and stick to things they find easy.

Better: “Well done for sticking at the problem until you solved it”

As I wrote in my article How to Praise People the Right Way, research published in the book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success found there is a right way and a wrong way to praise people. If we praise a person’s ability, they can develop a “fixed mindset” which discourages learning and makes people fear failure. This can hinder their success in life. A superior approach is to praise the effort that led to the outcome. This helps people develop a “growth mindset” which encourages learning and builds resilience to failure.

Check out the original parenting article/listicle above, if you have not done so already. It certainly made me think.

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Until next time…
Stephen

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