Toxic Words – Part 1 of 3

Imagine you are having a conversation with a colleague, family member or friend. You have some disagreements but have agreed to disagree and are moving on to a different subject. Suddenly they say something which in your view is quite judgmental and unfair. You can’t help but feel emotional and argumentative. Everything was going so well but it feels as if their comment has acted like a toxic substance which has now polluted your mood.

Misplaced and carelessly chosen words or statements often severely undermine enthusiasm and drive and lead to reduced productivity, relationships and are a waste of time and energy. Such harmful comments or words have been classified into several different groups. Recognizing these groups of words or sentences and knowing how to deal with them effectively will enable you to avoid getting into unnecessary confrontations and deal more efficiently with difficult people.

There are 6 categories we can place these toxic words into. They are:

  1. Generalizations

  2. Labelling

  3. Provocative Language

  4. Blame Game

  5. Reactive Words

  6. Can I Just Say …

During the next series of blogs, we will break each one down.

Today we look at “Generalization” and “Labelling


The reason people choose this venomous language in an argument is perhaps to exaggerate their claim, make it look more important and satisfy their desire to show their dissatisfaction.

Examples of Generalization:

  • “You never…”

  • “You always…”

  • “This project is the worst project in the world”

  • “This client is the most annoying client ever”

How to Avoid Generalizing:

The solution is to use ‘Grey Language’. Nothing should be expressed in extreme because it is likely that it is not true.

As an example you can use:

  • “Some people”

  • “Sometimes”

  • “On this occasion”

  • “During”

Understand that when someone uses generalizations in a conversation, they are probably just trying to demonstrate their level of concern and to emphasize how much this particular matter is important to them. Ignore the extreme language. Pay close attention to what they are saying and acknowledge their concern. Focus on facts and specifics in the conversation and after a while, most people start to understand your approach and may even follow suit.

Labelling: This is the classic name-calling

Examples of Labelling:

  • “You are lazy”

  • “You are hopeless”

  • “You are bossy”

  • “You are too conservative”

How to Avoid Labelling:

As soon as you felt the urge to go for a strong label, turn around and think of positive remarks. You can always find positivity in anything. For example, if they are slow, say, “This has taken longer than it probably deserves, so we need to review it.” If they are bossy, say, “I appreciate your enthusiasm in pushing forward with various aspects of this role…”

Remember, labelling is similar to making extreme remarks and generalizations. Logically your statement is likely to be wrong and again you may lose the war by focusing too much on the battle.

If you receive remarks that label you something you do not approve off, simply ignore it. Understand that the label is just a made-up concept. The person is trying to get a rise out of you and show that they are not happy about something. You could try to find the source of unhappiness and help them fix it.

In the next blog, we will look at “Provocative Language” and the “Blame Game

Excerpts taken from Career Concepts “Dealing with Difficult People” Workshop.

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