6 Psychologically Damaging Things People Say At Work

These common phrases can have lasting harm on a co-worker's self-esteem and sense of belonging.
Words can leave a lasting impact on your colleagues. Choose yours carefully.
Mykola Sosiukin / EyeEm via Getty Images
Words can leave a lasting impact on your colleagues. Choose yours carefully.

The words of co-workers and clients can stay with you long after you leave a job and certain phrases can detonate a professional relationship, making people question whether they ever truly belonged at a company or if they can ever work with or trust a colleague again.

That’s why it’s so important to learn to identify and avoid such phrases, whether they’re obviously rude or seemingly innocuous. Here are psychologically damaging but commonly used phrases to watch out for in your work communications.

1. “No offense but ...” or “No disrespect but ...”

Mary Abbajay, president of the leadership development consultancy Careerstone Group, was once hired by a company to conduct team building. When she met the manager of the team she would work with, he told her, “With all due respect, I’ve forgotten more about team building than you’ll ever know.”

Abbajay ended up turning down the job as a result. “This was 15 years ago, and it stills sticks with me,” she said. “If he hadn’t said ‘with all due respect,’ I might’ve taken it differently. That’s just the icing on the cake that shows ‘I do not respect you, I think you’re wrong.’”

Along with the similar phrase “No offense ...,” she said, these condescending words signal that the speaker does not respect the other person’s point of view.

2. “I don’t have time for this.”

Psychological safety is key to keeping teams together. Researchers describe it as the mental space in which employees are free to speak up, share bad news, and ask for help when they are in over their heads.

If your pattern in responding to colleagues’ requests is telling them that you are too busy or don’t have enough time, it sends a signal that the other person is not a priority and that they shouldn’t go to you when they need help.

“That person is going to be reluctant to come back to you again if there’s a problem or situation, and it may throw them off so much that they’re worried too much about taking your time and annoying you than getting what they need,” Abbajay said.

When managers say this, it can silence their team and make members less likely to own up to mistakes, she added.

3. “What X is trying to say is ...”

If you’ve been in a meeting with a colleague who feels the need to reframe what you just said in their own words, then you understand the frustration of hearing this phrase. Abbajay said this is the one she dislikes the most, because it doesn’t move the conversation productively forward even if that’s the speaker’s intent.

When someone does this to you, you may jump to a conclusion like “I’m inarticulate, I’m stupid, people aren’t understanding me, people aren’t respecting it out of my mouth, so you feel like you have to say it out of your mouth,” she said. “It’s very diminishing. It lowers the other person’s status.”

Rather than rephrasing colleagues’ words, Abbajay said colleagues could simply request when they need more of an explanation in a conversation.

4. “You seem young for ...” or “You’re so articulate for a ...”

Lawrese Brown, the founder of C-Track Training, a workplace education company, cited the type of undermining comments that you can sometimes be the recipient of when you go against a colleague’s assumptions and expectations of how you should present yourself at work. These comments can range from microaggressions about your identity to questions about your leadership potential.

Brown said she has heard from clients who have been told they were being a “weak” leader or “seemed young.” One client was advised to change her hairstyle.

“Her manager told her people would take her more seriously if she straightened her hair,” she said. “These all fall under the umbrella of, ‘You’re being perceived as not appropriate; something about your self-presentation or the way you’re being perceived causes people to question your ability to do the job.’”

These kind of comments can get under employees’ skin and make them feel inadequate at work. “We start to feel the way we’re operating is not appropriate or effective, or we’re just conscious that it could be a knock against us,” Brown said.

5. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

Brown said it’s OK to note that words can be interpreted differently, but that you should be careful not to be dismissive when others disagree. “I didn’t mean it like that” is a common defensive comment that does not acknowledge how your words can be received, she said.

The goal is to recognize that your words carry weight, and can do harm. Remind yourself someone is on the receiving end of your comment, and first ask yourself, “Is it productive?” before you say it, she said.

6. “Nobody else has brought this up to me” or “You’re taking this personally.”

Brown said managers commonly make the mistake of using invalidating comments such as, “Nobody else has brought this up to me” when a team or employee raises a concern. According to Brown, that can send the message: “If this is only important to you, is this worth taking seriously?”

When colleagues invalidate your feelings like this, or you do it to others, it can stop much-needed conversations from happening.

″‘You’re too emotional about this, you’re taking this personally. Other people haven’t said this.’ What you’re missing by saying this is you’re undermining the other person,” Brown said. “These are phrases, that once said, very few people have the tools to have the difficult conversation to unpack that. People just don’t say anything.“

And ultimately, when co-workers stop talking to each other, communication breaks down, mistakes are more likely to happen, tensions run higher and everyone is more on edge.

Your colleagues will “tend to be more people-pleasing, because they no longer trust their own voice, or perception of an experience, or it inhibits their ability to trust their colleagues,” Brown said. “When we don’t trust, we put more rigid processes in place, and it’s because we don’t believe that our word will be acknowledged or that our needs in environments will be met.”

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