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Irritators (Target Words) Impede Communication

Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves. Carl Jung.

If you have a problem with me, tell me. Not everyone else.

Business Professor Roy Lewicki based on his research lays out eighteen communication behaviors of effective communicators and negotiators. He compares the frequency of use of average versus skilled communicators. Here are some examples of the research results:

Behaviors of Persuaders and Communicators Average Skilled

Exploration of options and possible outcomes 2.6 5.1

Search for Common Ground 11% 38%

Focusing on the long term 4.0 8.5

Concentration on sequence,: issue 1, then 2, etc. 4.9 2.1

Use of irritators, target words or hot button phrases 10.8 2.3

(Source: “The Behavior of Successful Persuaders,” Neil Rackham, Huthwaite Research Group Limited, Negotiation, Roy Lewicki)

So, based on the research, ineffective communicators use irritating phrases or words five times as much as effective communicators.

Why is using irritators, irritating?

The use of target words or phrases divert from the sentence, the meaning and the conversation. In many cases, when people talk, they want to express a meaning or make a point. When irritators are used, so many folks instantly begin to focus on the irritators and not the point of the conversation.


A: Everybody wants society to move towards greater freedom in the workplace.

B: Not everybody. A few people want to be told what to do.

A was trying to talk about the workplace and possibly greater freedom of decision-making and maybe, how to accomplish certain goals. B zeroes in on the target word and has lost focus. Often people use terms like everybody and nobody as a habit, without thinking, and without sometimes knowing these terms irritate folks.


A: Why did you decide to use the saw instead of the screwdriver?

B: What are you accusing me of?

In this case, A really wanted to know the efficiency of using the saw on this project instead of the screwdriver, but starting the sentence with the word Why placed the question in an accusatory way. A did not mean that but B received it in the accusatory way.

Some target words irritate most folks; some, irritate some folks; and others, are individual specific.

Words/Phrase that Generally Irritate Most People

This is a small list but easily recognizable. If one wants to be an effective communicator, one omits these. If one wants to be an effective listener, one ignores these.

-Yes, but….

-You (often accompanied by a pointing finger)

-Why (every “why” question can be transformed into a “what” question)

-Everybody/Nobody/ No one

-Should (most people do not like to be lectured at)


Yes, But: This may be one of the most common phrases. It is irritating because whatever is said before the “but” is negated.

-I appreciate this opportunity, but I deserved the promotion.

Never/Always Examples:

- In desperation during his campaign, Netanyahu asserted that there would never be 2 states. Post his victory, he said this was merely campaign rhetoric.

-Trump declared he would never meet with Meghan Kelly, Reporter, but of course on 4/13 he had a secret meeting with her.

-Mark had a bad experience with co-owning property with his partner. He will never do that again but he just did with Robert

- Tim says he will never ride the streetcar, but then two weeks later he did.

-TV Personality Jim Lehrer said that he would never moderate a Presidential debate but he did 2012.

-DC based Haynes Elementary Charter School Principal said that they would never create a high school. They did.

-Actor Robert D’Niro told Jimmy Fallon that he would never be the host of the Tonight Show. He bet $100 and had to pay.

-“Redskins” owner says he will never change the name. In 2020, they abandoned the name Redskins and are now searching for a new one.

-Travis says Scotland will never vote for independence from the United Kingdom. They did and failed in September, 2014.

-Cindy McCain said to the media that she will never reveal her private finances and she did 36 hours later.

-Senator (Rev.) Tom Coburn said he would never reveal his advice to his fellow Senator from Nevada who was in trouble but he did.

One of the problems with using terms such as never and always is that experience shows they translate into 20%. So, when people use never, there is an 80% that they will do what they say they will never do.

Concomitantly for, “always.”

There are a few irritators that are irritating because they are dismissive.



-Besides that….

There are some irritators that irritate because the are Lecturing

You always

You never

You should

You ought


Why say it? Irritating.


-All I am saying….

-It goes without saying…

The most annoying phrases people use in emails

Adobe surveyed over 1,000 white collar workers about their email pet peeves

-Re-attaching for convenience=25% of the readers are irritated.

-Not sure if you saw my last email...13%

-Per my last email...11%

-Per our conversation...11%

-Any updates on this? 10%

-Sorry for the double email=9%

-Please advise=9%

-As previously stated...6%

-As discussed...6%

-Re-attaching for convenience=6%


1. "Touch base" - Let's reconvene in person to debate a specific issue or event that we could probably just discuss over email

2. "Blue sky thinking" - "Brexit will never happen"

3. "We’re on a journey"- Life is a marathon, not a sprint

3. "Game changer" - Double-stuffed Oreos

4. "No-brainer" - Peanut butter and jam

Top 5 Most Annoying Words 2017-Marist Poll

1. "Whatever" with 33%

2. "Fake News" 23%

3. "No Offense, But" 20%

4. "Literally" 11%

5. "You Know What I Mean" with 10%

9 Irritating Business Cliches Nobody Wants to Hear Anymore

It is what it is

Is that the best you can do? Don’t hide behind a cliché. Try to make the best of a situation and find a better solution for whatever “it” is. The first step is to be clear about what “it” even is.

Alt approach: Take action rather than express a meaningless cliché.

Work smarter, not harder

While the intent of this phrase is good, helping people enhance the way they work, for many reasons it feels like an underhanded and not very specific way of saying their current way of working is lacking.

Alt approach: Help people actually work smart and talk about specific tactics, not vague clichés.

Game changer

Many corporate catchphrases like this one were pulled from sports, but I sure wish they would have stayed there. This phrase is so overused it is employed to describe ANY change when it should be reserved for only significant, ground-breaking developments.

Alt approach: State what the developments and changes are and explain how they will improve business.

Giving 110%

While to some this phrase is mathematically impossible, I like to think of how we could use that extra 10% in a different way. Why waste effort by going to 110% when all that’s really required is 100%?

Alt approach: Use up that extra 10% effort on a different project or objective and stop saying you’re giving 110%.

Low-hanging fruit

Our focus should be those tasks that propel our business forward—the ones that have the biggest impact even if they are harder—not the ones that are easy to accomplish. To focus on low-hanging fruit misses the point. Although they might be quick, they might not be significant enough for you to spend any time on.

Alt approach: Forget the low-hanging fruit. Focus on actions that make the biggest difference.

Let’s take this offline

When I hear this one, I always want more specifics. Who, what, where and when is this “offline” happening? It’s slightly dismissive of the topic when it’s not accompanied by the specifics of how the discussion will proceed after it’s taken “offline.”

Alt approach: Drop this cliché in favor of calling out the who, what, where and when the conversation will continue.

Drop the ball

We’re in business not playing a sport or fetch like a dog. When it comes to making a mistake, the most important topic to discuss is how to avoid it in the future or what action is being taken to rectify the problem.

Alt approach: Use your words to describe what transpired. “I didn’t hit my sales goal, because I’m struggling to win bids due to a new competitor.”

I don’t have the bandwidth

I think I can safely say that most people who use this phrase aren’t referring to “the transmissions capacity of an electronics communications device.”

Alt approach: Select descriptive words that explain why you aren’t able to help out—as that’s what’s you’re really trying to say when you express, “I don’t have the bandwidth.”

Rightsizing Human beings are impacted by a company’s decision to “rightsize”—a term used to describe the elimination of positions and a reduction of the workforce. This feels “not right” to those people who are losing their positions.

Alt approach: Explain the organizational changes being implemented.


Here are his top ten most irritating filler phrases:

1. “At the end of the day” – What does that even mean? Does it mean later? Just leave it out!

2. “To be honest” – Why, are you normally not honest with me? What a crazy thing to say!

3. “If you know what I mean” – If I don’t know what you mean I would probably tell you. I don’t need a prompt.

4. “You know” – Is this a question or a statement?

5. “Having said that” – Yes, you have just said that. I was here, you have been speaking to me and I don’t need you to tell me that you have just said something to me!

6. “Like” – This is especially annoying if it is inserted a number of times into every single sentence. Why, oh, why?

7. “Literally” – Should mean ‘figuratively’ or exactly as you say. It makes so sense to ‘literally explode’ or to ‘literally die’.

8. “I am just saying’” – Yes, I have heard it. Should this make me feel better about the fact that you have just offended me or said something that didn’t make sense?

9. “Seriously” – Are you saying that you are telling me the truth or are you using it as a replacement for ‘yeah’ – I am, like, seriously confused!

10. "I mean" – Some people litter this phrase into every single sentence they say. It must be one of the most meaningless phrases of all.

Specific Irritators to Some People

Some words or phrases may be irritating to a specific person. If one watches their body language and listen to their words and voice tone, one might be able to discern such.


-Compromise: Professor Larry Ray served as a prosecutor for several years. During intake, he often offered complainants the option of mediation. They would ask, what is mediation? He would explain: Mediation is a time when folks get together, discuss the situation, compromise and reach an agreement. Complainants would instantly retort, I am not compromising my values. Of course, that is not what Ray was recommending.

Ray soon learned that in order to have a smooth conversation. He needed to avoid the term “compromise.”

It was odd since Ray viewed the term, compromise, as positive, as “co-promises.”

Win/Win: The term “win/win” became popular in the 1980’s possibly emanating from Author and Harvard Law Professor Roger Fisher in his seminal work: Getting to Yes. One day,

Professor Larry Ray was delivering a mediation training to a group of attorneys in Delaware. He was teaching a module on Target Words. One attorney raised their hand and said, Whenever I hear the term, win/win, I turn to my client and say, Watch Out!”

This provoked Ray to contemplate the use of this term. He does not consider mediation or negotiation to be game or a sport so maybe win/win is not appropriate. Maybe win/win has wore out its welcome.

Now, Ray substitutes the term, “Goal Oriented” negotiation.

-Husband’s Name: National Trainer Prue Kestner was delivering a module on Target Words. In delivering, she realized that her long time husband’s name was a target word when said by her-the long time wife.

Each Sunday, Husband Phil’s niece called from California. Kestner would answer the phone, go to the bottom of the stairs, and call out, Phil, your niece is on the line. Phil would grumble, grumble and answer the phone, Hello, love.

The Sunday post this realization, the niece calls as usual. Kestner answers. She goes to the stairs and calls out, Your niece is on the line. Phil responds: Thank you.

Notice in the last example Kestner did not use her husband’s name, Phil.

No Problem/ No worry; News Commentator Tom Sherwood listed “no problem” as his 2019 most irritating phrase. He wondered why clerks would think that providing service to a customer would be a problem. No worry fits into this same category.

Repetition and Verbal Behaviors Can Be Irritating.

Another fascinating area of irritation is the repetition of sounds, phrases or words. Often talkers do not realize that they have acquired this irritating habit.

The most familiar is the sound of ummmm filling in each verbal pause while speaking.

Another is ending statements with a questioning tone. Most receive this type of communication as if the talker is unsure of what they have just stated.

Another familiar one is the repetition of a word or phrase at the end of each sentence:

-You know?

-You know what I mean?

-You know what I am saying?

Example: Kelly Clarkson on her daily show wants to relate to her audience and to show her down home (Ft. Worth, Texas) approach. To do so, she repetitively uses Y’All. There’s been no count at how many times per hour she uses this phrase but some audience members are irritated.

Example: Several CNN Commentators want to express their appreciation for their guests and have begun the habit of thanking them, very, very much. As with so many repetitious examples, they may not know how much they are using this phrase but some listeners are irritated.

Political Irritating Words and Phrases Abound. Examples:

-Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton while running for President, 2016: “You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?” Clinton said. “The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up.”

-Senator Mitt Romney’s comment while running for President, 2012: “In an interview with Fox News Sunday's Chris Wallace, Mitt Romney acknowledged just how much his "47 percent" comments -- in which he all but wrote off the votes of half the country -- had negatively impacted his chances of being president: ‘That hurt. There's no question that hurt and did real damage to my campaign."

-Former President Barak Obama while running for President made this comment during an unguarded moment: "You go into these small towns…They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

-Virginia Senator Candidate George Allen speaking to supporters in a town called Breaks. Allen spotted a Democratic volunteer for his opponent's campaign.

He said to his audience: "This fellow here, over here with the yellow shirt. Macaca or whatever his name is. He's with my opponent, he's following us around everywhere."

The fellow was an Indian-American named S.R. Sidarth,

Top Political Gaffes in History

1. John Kerry being for it before he was against it. (2004)

Under attack for changing his mind on important issues for political reasons, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry explained his switch on a funding bill. “I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it,” he declared. That one sentence came to define the Massachusetts senator in the minds of many swing voters.

2. George McGovern saying he was “one thousand percent” behind his running mate. (1972)

“I am one thousand percent for Tom Eagleton and I have no intention of dropping him from the ticket,” McGovern said. Soon, McGovern dropped Eagleton from the ticket. His credibility also dropped. He lost in a landslide to Richard M. Nixon.

3. Gerald Ford liberating Poland. (1976)

In the first presidential debate of 1976, President Gerald Ford mistakenly said that Poland was free of Soviet domination. It wasn’t. The gaffe proved costly to Ford among blue-collar voters whose families came from Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe.

4. Michael Dukakis in the tank. (1988)

This is a gaffe without a word. Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis wanted to look presidential. Tough on defense. He took a ride in a tank. He looked like a little boy in a big helmet. Big mistake. Within 24 hours, the Duke’s tank ride was a Republican campaign commercial.

5. Howard Dean’s scream. (2004)

The one-time Democratic frontrunner’s campaign never recovered from his “yee-haw” moment the night of his defeat in the 2004 Iowa caucuses. The former Vermont governor got carried away while reciting a list of states he had targeted for victory. “The Scream” became The Story of the night. And the campaign.

Word Doctoring for Better Phrases/Words

Especially in mediation and negotiation, one can avoid “hot” words and substitute more palatable ones.


-Use situation instead of problem.

-Use perspectives instead of “story,” “the facts” or “your side.”

-Instead of “no worry,” what about My Pleasure.

Yes, And….Instead of Yes, But….

“So what’s the difference you may be asking? This slight change in wording is commonly thought of having the same meaning but it results in people having a completely different feeling just after those two words have been spoken… This small change to the way I communicate has resulted in such positive outcomes. By resisting the built in urge in my head to say the word “but”, I am saying “yes, and”.

If you have negative news, be open and honest. Let the person know what the issue is and ask them to be part of the solution. Tough conversations are hard to get through, but being honest and straightforward show much more respect than a patronizing ‘Yes, but.”


Effective communicators and negotiators recognize and avoid using target words and phrases. They realize that these irritators divert the attention of the listeners from the meaning that the talkers want to convey. There are many general irritators like Yes, but and there are others that may be more specific to the person or situation. An effective communicator pays attention to the body language, tone of voice and words of the listeners to discern when irritation occurs.

Effective communicators and negotiators often recognize what irritators bother them. They ignore them. They are not diverted. They discern the meaning of the talkers.

Some may respond, Are you saying I have to watch every word that I say during a negotiation?

The answer is, Yes. Remember the old Emily Dickinson quote,

Some say, a word is dead when it is said; I say it just begins to live that day.


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