If you’ve ever been involved in a heated discussion and found yourself enraged by a single statement, you probably understand that your partner, sibling, colleague or parent knows exactly how to push your buttons, and you likely know exactly how to push theirs. But what does that actually accomplish? Being put on the defensive rarely results in a solution. 

Read on to see four statements to avoid, and what to say instead.  I know I’m not the only one who’s gotten it wrong from time to time.  Do any of these resonate with you?

1. “You always disappoint me.”

Maybe your spouse perpetually runs late, so you argue about it. You use the words “always” and “disappoint.” Instead, try this: “When you’re late, I feel insignificant, and I’d like to understand why being on time is more important to me than it is to you. Maybe we can figure out a way to make this work better for both of us in the future.” This works because you’re focusing on problem solving rather than blame. Collaborating to avoid this dilemma in the future makes it constructive instead of destructive.

2. “I’m leaving.”

Storming out and slamming the door, whether literally or figuratively, is the ultimate rejection. You’re saying, in essence, that you don’t have any interest in understanding what your partner is feeling. Instead, try this: “I really want to help, but I just need to calm down and collect my thoughts. All I need is 10 minutes, and we can get back to our conversation.” This works because taking a time-out affords us the ability to slow down our reactions and check our body language.

3. “You’re crazy.”

Labels can be a slippery slope in any instance, but when said in anger, nothing useful can result. Calling your colleague “crazy” will make them feel invalidated and unimportant, regardless of your intention to actually attack a specific idea or statement, and not their overall mental health. Instead, try this: “I know you’re trying to be creative and think outside the box to find a solution. Let’s brainstorm together on some additional options.” This works because removing the personal attack takes away the need to defend.

4.“I’m done.”

Why abandon all hope? Even if your effort to maintain a calm atmosphere backfires, remember that each of us operates on our own emotional timetable. Instead, try this: take a breath (or a break) and then re-approach with anger diffusing terms, like “I really didn’t intend to hurt your feelings,” or “I’d like to try to say this another way.” This works because stepping away from the anger and choosing your words more carefully will encourage the spirit of compromise.

In my work life as a Mediator, as well as in my personal life, I’m continually reminded that words matter.  Taking a nanosecond to better choose your words, especially when you’re angry or frustrated, is always a good idea. 

I know, I just said not to say “always.”  Maybe I should have chosen another word!