A short list of phrases to SAY and STIFLE right about now

A short list of phrases to SAY and STIFLE right about now
August 31, 2020 Beth Nyland

Things are a mess right now. I’ll spare you a detailed description of “these challenging times” and instead offer a litany of key words so your creative brain can fill in the blanks: division, unrest, virus, politics, restrictions, distance …

But wait, there’s more.

In the midst of everything, you’re trying to do good work. Or find good work.  And that means communicating, because it’s damn near impossible to be in business without interacting with other humans. Before you can be mindful of what those others are feeling, face it: you’re harboring feelings of your own.

This is you: distracted, restless, frustrated, uncertain, and so freaking tired. Not the best mindset for transforming thoughts into effective messages.

You have to find the words. But how?

Breathing helps. So, take a deep breath, and print this post. You’ll want it for quick reference to the 10 phrases I’m offering up: five SAY IT phrases that belong in your business vocabulary, and five STIFLE IT phrases you can stop using today, thank you very much.

SAY IT

I need to step away.

This phrase can bring a useful pause to any conversation, whether you’re talking to others or yourself. When the team’s energy slumps in a problem-solving discussion, use these words to buy time for thoughtful creativity: “Now that we’re clear on the issue, let’s step away, sleep on it, and come back tomorrow with fresh ideas.” Also, train the voice inside your head to say this phrase when you’re tempted to do or say something regrettable: “I need to step away. If not, I’m going to light this *#&^@ up by email.” Seriously. Step away.

I don’t get it.

When a colleague or consultant is serving up spaghetti chart slides with a side of word salad, be the one who calls B.S. by raising a considerate question: “I’m trying to understand. Could you please lay that out for us in a different way? Maybe with an example?”

What I hear you saying is …

You don’t have to be a licensed therapist to use this active listening phrase. You just have to (1) listen attentively with genuine desire to understand (not find fault or poke holes); (2) restate what you’ve heard in your own words; and (3) listen again as the other person agrees with your paraphrase or clarifies the difference. Tedious? Sometimes. But worth the effort.

Thank you.

Like breathing, gratitude relieves stress (and boosts happiness, changes your brain, and more). Keeping a gratitude journal is good for you. Sharing thanks out loud is good for two: thank-er and thank-ee. Bring gratitude to work by thanking at least three people a day. Bonus points for finding a way to thank that co-worker. You know the one.

I want to give credit to _________.

Gratitude’s smokin’-hot cousin is recognition. Become the person who broadcasts others’ good work. When your boss applauds your presentation, tell her it came together thanks to Justine’s research and Jamal’s design. When the help desk rescues your files, get that guy’s name, ask for his supervisor’s email address, and send a note of praise. When a storytelling consultant knocks your socks off, go straight to her LinkedIn profile and write an endorsement. 🙂

STIFLE IT

Yeah, but …

“But” negates or diminishes what came before. “Jen’s presentation was really impressive.” “Yeah, but she never answered my question.” Borrow “yes, and” from the world of improv. Here’s how: say “yes” because you really do agree, then add something new and constructive to the conversation. “Yes, and I still have a question for her. Let’s call her.”

In these challenging times …

Oh, you mean 2020? If you want to trigger eye rolls, cynicism, and rage, keep saying “in these challenging times” and “the new normal.” In a year that seems more like an eon, these phrases quickly became tired clichés. You can do better.

With all due respect …

This is code for, “I’m about to say something disrespectful.” It’s almost always followed by disagreement, criticism, or verbal attack. If you have something negative to say, just say it—constructively. Skip the faux politeness.

To be honest …

I’ll give you two reasons to ditch this phrase. First, it’s a signal that what you’re about to say is something I’d rather not hear. “Caution: Hard Truth Ahead.” Second, it makes me question everything else you’ve said. “Oh, now you’re going to be honest. How refreshing.” TBH, this phrase makes me wish you were talking to someone else.

It is what it is.

You’re probably not saying this because you’ve reached Zen-level acceptance. More likely, you’ve given up, resigned to a less-than-ideal status quo. Our world and our workplaces need more from you right now. Shake off that complacency and get creative. What could be better than “what it is”? Give me your vision, and I’ll “yes, and” you all the way.


These 10 phrases are just a start. Let’s build a longer list of SAY IT and STIFLE IT phrases. What would you like to hear more or less at work?

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