How “trigger phrases” sabotage effective communication.

December 11, 2023

You may not even realize that you’re using trigger phrases that sabotage effective communication…but I’ll bet you realize when you’re on the receiving end of them.

For example, when you ask someone’s opinion on something and they begin their response with “If I’m being honest…” doesn’t that immediately ruffle your feathers?

Here’s why.  The phrase “if I’m being honest” brings several negative implications with it:

  • It has a reputation of preceding bad news.  It’s as if the person needs some kind of justification for delivering disappointing news, so they claim “honesty” as their reason.
  • It implies that the speaker isn’t always honest, but THIS time (because the situation is so bad) they’ll speak the truth.

So it makes sense that this phrase would put the recipient on high alert.  People rarely (if ever) say stuff like “if I’m being honest, you look fabulous” or “if I’m being honest, that was the greatest presentation you’ve ever delivered.”  When they are sharing what they think is good news, there’s no reason for them to invoke the honesty clause as an introduction. They don’t reach for justification to soften the blow.

The problem with using trigger phrases in our communication is that we intend for them to soften blows and/or get the recipient to embrace what we say.  However, in reality, they do the opposite:  they make people instantly defensive and usually causes them to resist what we say.

There are several reasons contributing to this reaction:

  • Trigger phrases are often insincere and the recipient knows it…probably because they themselves have used such phrases when THEY are trying to soften blows.
  • Often, trigger phrases signal that some type of disagreement is coming, or some other bit of negativity that challenges the position of the original speaker.  These phrases have earned this reputation over time, so the pattern is easily sensed.
  • The overuse of trigger phrases has diluted their power and made them trite.  So even when we really do mean them sincerely, they fall flat.

Here are a few other common trigger phrases that sabotage effective communication:

    • With All Due Respect:  The moment you say this, everyone knows you’re about to disagree with them.  So why use this trigger phrase and get their back up?  You can use your tone and word choice to disagree without being disrespectful.  If you don’t feel comfortable just stating your differing opinion with no preamble, you can use a phrase like, “perhaps I can offer a different point of view here.”
    • I’m Sorry:  Ugh, talk about an overused phrase that’s become trite.  The words “I’m sorry” are used to apologize for everything from spousal cheating to asking someone to repeat a sentence you didn’t hear.  Some folks even habitually start random sentences with it for no reason (lookin’ at you, Canadians).  It’s made the phrase fairly meaningless, so even when you’re being sincere, it doesn’t have the impact you intended.  In fact, so many people sense this about the phrase that “how to apologize without saying I’m sorry” is one of Google’s most popular search queries.  See how we learned that the hard way here and here are the tips we wrote for rephrasing to avoid those two words.
    • I May Be Wrong, But:  Besides the addition of that pesky word “but” (more on that below), starting a sentence with “I may be wrong” is like a first cousin to “if I’m being honest.”  It shares that similar vibe of “I disagree with you and I need something to soften the blow, so I’ll throw you a bone that maybe I’m wrong and you’re right…but really we both know you’re wrong.”  How you rephrase to avoid using it will depend on the situation, but “perhaps I can offer a different point of view” could work very well here also.
    • You Need to Calm Down:  When someone is agitated, telling them to calm down is more likely to trigger further agitation than make them calm. “You need to calm down” tries to appeal to their rational thinking.  But agitation, anger, and frustration are emotions, and rational thinking is usually overshadowed by intense emotions.  Try this instead.  Ask “how can I help you calm down” or even just “how can I help you?”  It shows you’re willing to help/listen, and it forces them to override their emotions and think about solutions.
    • I Hear You:  Chalk another one up to misuse.  Somewhere in history, therapists and communication coaches suggested (and frankly, still suggest) that saying “I hear you” when someone is speaking signals that you’re listening.  But – because we’re human and we can’t have nice things – this phrase has been so misused and overused that it’s actually devolved into a phrase that pretty much means someone is NOT listening, or at the very least is being dismissive of what we’re saying.  It’s often a way for people to make a show of listening when really they don’t want to engage in whatever it is you’re saying.  So, instead of saying “I hear you,” SHOW IT.  Engage in the conversation with more than just pretense.

And finally, let’s talk about the peskiest word in the world of communication… BUT.

An image of spaghetti and three meatballs on a white plate with red sauce on top and green herbs in the background. The text that says "these meatballs are great, but..." as an example of how trigger phrases sabotage effective communication.

No word in the English language (and probably all other languages) triggers defensiveness faster than the word “but.”

“But” is a signal that negativity is about to follow:

  • Your presentation was great, but…
  • I was going to invite you to be on this team, but…
  • I loved your proposal, but…
  • That style looks pretty on you, but…

It’s possible to avoid using the word “but” in many circumstances.  In some cases, just stop talking after the first phrase.  You may WANT to add the negative phrase, but do you really NEED to add it?  Are you really the person responsible for sharing that bit of negativity?  And is that negative point fact or just your own opinion?  Sometimes we offer opinions because WE want to, not because they need to be heard.

Another way to avoid using the word “but” is to choose your timing.  You may very well have feedback to give on that presentation, and you might indeed be the appropriate person to deliver it.  But does it REALLY need to be delivered in the same sentence as when you say the presentation was great?

My friend is a master at timing, particularly when it comes to her appropriate and selective use of the word “but.”  Instead of saying stuff to her husband like “Those meatballs were great but next time use more cheese,” she says, “those meatballs were great” and then later, even days later, she says “I’ve been thinking about those delicious meatballs you made.  Next time, can we try them with a little more cheese in the recipe and see what that does?”

It’s pretty brilliant.  It shows her husband that she’s savoring them even days later, and that she loves his cooking enough to make requests and get him to experiment with recipes.  She’s happy, he’s happy.  No buts.

In some cases, the simple trick of replacing “but” with “and” is effective.  Like, “your presentation was great and if you practice making more eye contact with the audience it will be even better!”  See a few more of these “simply replace or drop the triggering word” tips here.

Overall, trigger phrases that sabotage effective communication are extremely common and frequently used.  They’re phrases you hear – and likely use – all the time.  But just because they’re used, it doesn’t mean they work.  So, be aware of situations when you need to communicate effectively and try to avoid these phrases if you can.  You’ll get a better result.