There are certain words we hear in conversation that can instantly set us off. They’re the kind of words that our brains hear as attacks and thus prompt us to react defensively (and sometimes even aggressively). In a recent study, we discovered a whole slew of “trigger words” that elicited immediate and bad reactions from listeners.


For example, the word “Never” generally elicits a bad reaction. Think about it: when’s the last time you were in a conversation in which the word Never was used in a happy way? Hearing a boss or colleague say “you’re never on time for meetings” doesn’t usually prompt a rational and constructive dialogue. Instead, it makes us defensive, it kicks off an adrenaline response and gets us looking for a biting comeback (like that one time a few years ago where we were actually 20 minutes early for a meeting!).


Interestingly, the word “Always” also generally elicits a negative reaction. Now, if people walked around telling us “you’re always so brilliant” perhaps this would be a good word. But more often it’s used to say things like “you’re always sending emails with typos in them…” Again, this causes defensiveness and prompts emotional responses like “No I’m not always sending typos; I can find plenty of examples where there are no typos in my emails.”


Words like Always and Never are called “absolutes” and because they’re so emotionally intense and preclude nuance or subtlety, they’re generally a bad choice when giving someone feedback.


Our research also discovered that the word “You” elicits bad reactions. In conversation, especially feedback conversations, the word “You” is very often stated like “you need to stop doing XYZ” or “you need to be better at ABC.”  Attacks and criticism so commonly follow the word “you” that people just naturally tense-up when they hear it.


The key to “avoiding trigger words” is to stick to a style of communication called “fact-based communication” in which we use words that are candid, objective, specific, timely and unemotional.


There are more “trigger words” that instantly elicit bad reactions, and we’ll be sharing them on next week’s webinar called “Giving Constructive Feedback Without Making People Angry.”