What Not To Say When You Are Mad


When you are irritated, impatient, or stressed out, it’s easy to start conversations with a hurtful remark. You could poison the conversation with one word or phrase.

In a previous post, Stop Saying Stupid Things, I shared a few examples of disrespectful comments and then listed steps for regulating your emotions to maintain trust and safety in your conversation.

Then I read an article by James Detert in the Harvard Business Review called, Words and Phrases to Avoid in a Difficult Conversation. I realized more subtle ways we put people down in conversations. The article made me face the times I use a sarcastic quip or tone of voice to reveal my arrogant judgments. I beat people up with one word or short phrase. Then I rationalize my behavior or beat myself up for being a person I don’t like.

Based on my experiences and Detert’s ideas, I think the following words are commonly used. See if you can catch yourself before letting them fall out of your mouth.  You can find a 3-minute video summarizing these words to review and share with others so we all connect more respectfully even when annoyed.

  1. Saying “clearly” or “obviously” before stating your opinion, as if the other person’s perspective demonstrates how clueless they are or their question is dumb. With one word, you shame them for not seeing through your eyes. Everyone you speak with interprets situations based on their past experiences, as you do. You can make your case for your point of view by sharing how what you saw or heard relates to what you think without insulting people for their interpretations.
  2. Telling people what they “should” do after they did something or shared with you their plans. If they aren’t asking for your advice, “shoulding” them is belittling. Your attitude says you know what is best for them and they don’t. Consider saying, “You might consider…” or “Have you thought about doing…”so they feel you are engaging them in thinking through what to do in the situation instead of expecting their compliance.
  3. Assessing their behavior as “unprofessional” or “insensitive.” Most people are trying to do the right thing with what they know. Or, they don’t realize the negative impact their choices are having on others especially if they acted out of habit. Your words will only make them defensive because you are attacking their character as well as their behavior. Ask first if they would be willing to look how they might get a better result or reach their goal more quickly by examining the choices they made in the moment. Then they might be open to listening to your suggestions.
  4. Telling them, “Don’t take it personal.” Usually, you say this after they did take something you said as personal or you are going to say something that know you will make them angry or embarrassed. Do you think this statement will let you off the hook? Just the opposite – you are adding insult to injury. Instead, consider saying, “There are some facts that might help you though I know they may be difficult to hear. Can I share them, or is there a better time we could look at them?”
  5. Judging their concerns as inconsequential when you say, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” “You shouldn’t feel that way.” Or, “Just forget about it.” You might make these statements when you are uncomfortable with what they are saying or you honestly think they are making a bigger deal out of something than they should. There is that word again, should! Your intention to help them move forward will be derailed by these statements. You have made them feel wrong or weak. Can you be curious how they see the situation and appreciate where they are with it right now? They need to feel safe with you, not judged by you.

Before you flippantly say these words and phrases, when you are stressed or irritated, take a breath and release any tension you feel in your body. Then you can use compassionate curiosity to explore their view of the situation.

Once they feel heard and safe, ask if they would like to hear what you think or if they are open to suggestions for the future. They will be more willing to hear you once they feel heard and not made wrong for what they did or thought about doing.

There is no good reason to make people feel small with your words. If you don’t like them, don’t engage. If you feel annoyed or hurt, tell them why.

Be kind, not cruel. Commit to noticing your emotions and shifting to feeling care and curiosity to keep the conversation open instead of shutting it down.

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