- Michael Thompson
Courtesy of de-escalation expert, George J. Thompson
When it comes to both relationships and communication, I never would have imagined that the most valuable book I’d ever read would be written by a cop.
But the late George J. Thompson — aka “Doc Rhino” — wasn’t just any cop. The man was seriously accomplished and the true definition of a “Warrior Poet.”
Prior to joining the force, the talented martial artist — holding a Black Belt in both Judo and Taekwando — taught English at both the high-school and university level before receiving his post-doctorate from Princeton in rhetoric and persuasion.
Due to his love of education, martial arts, persuasion, and law enforcement, George created the only true Tactical Communication Course in the world which would later go on to form the work he is most known for — his book “Verbal Judo.”
Although originally intended to better arm police officers with more effective words to de-escalate potentially violent situations instead of resorting to force, George’s teachings can also help us to properly navigate stressful situations both at home and in the workplace.
Throughout his work, George gives plenty of advice regarding what to say to simmer down hot situations.
Of equal importance — and recommendations you can begin to implement immediately to improve your relationships — he also shares his wisdom of which phrases should be avoided at all costs.
If there was ever a time to take the hard steps to make difficult conversations easier on both parties, this would be it.
To get you started, below are 7 of the phrases George recommends not saying.
1. “Come here!”
Imagine you’re sitting at your desk and your boss steps out from their office and says “Come here!” to you in front of your co-workers.
If you’re anything like me, no matter how high you were holding your head prior to hearing these words you’d feel pretty small.
Ordering someone to come over to you may make you feel like you have authority. But when it comes to having people respect you, phrases like “Come here,” have the opposite effect as even kids don’t want to be spoken to like they’re a child.
When most people hear the words “Come here,” their first instinct is to turn around and run as it’s a massive signpost they’re in trouble.
Remember this the next time you have the urge to say, “Come here!” to anyone. Remind yourself that if you don’t like to hear these words the odds increase tremendously that you are not the only person who feels this way.
Saying in a calm voice, “Would you mind if we chatted for a moment?” or simply “May I talk to you?” is much more effective as it gives people the freedom to make their own decisions.
And if people want anything, it’s the choice to act on their own free will.
2. “Because those are the rules.”
In George’s work, he outlines 5 truths that apply to all people no matter their age, culture, or race.
- All people want to be treated with dignity and respect.
- All people want to be asked, rather than told to do something.
- All people want to be informed as to why they are being asked or ordered to do something.
- All people want to be given choices rather than threats.
- All people want a second chance when they make a mistake.
The words, “Because those are the rules,” don’t directly hit all of these 5 truths. But they do touch upon most of them. They show a lack of respect. They do not give people a choice. They are not informative.
A good rule of thumb is if you’re about to say something and it goes against any of “George’s 5 Truths” — let alone three — it’s best not to say them.
According to George, the words “Because those are the rules!” — or the super annoying: “Because I said so” — makes you sound weak and it shows you do not have the knowledge to support your order with logical reasoning.
On the flip-side, by explaining why something is the way it is you offer people a neutral piece of ground for them to stand on while opening the door for them to save face if they do end up complying with your explanation.
In short, if you are going to give people anything, let it be your “Why.” And if you don’t know the answer — find out.
3. “Calm down!”
If I’ve learned anything in my life it’s that rarely is my first response the best response.
That being said, no matter how many times I remind myself of this and try to remove the words “Calm down” from my vocabulary, I still let these words slip from time to time. This is especially true when either of my kids turns into a Gremlin.
Regardless of it being a difficult phrase to swallow, it’s in your best interest to work to break the habit. According to George, instead of helping us to reach the desired outcome of getting someone to slow their roll, the words “Calm down” makes people feel like you are criticizing their behavior and suggests their reasons for being upset aren’t valid.
Not only that but like many of the phrases on George’s list, it makes people feel like they have to defend their actions.
The next time you feel the urge to say “Calm down,” to either your kids or anyone else for that matter, try this instead: “It’s going to be alright. Talk to me. What’s the matter?” Or simply, “What’s the matter?”
These phrases are not only much softer. But they serve as a signal that you want to better understand what the person you are speaking with is going through and are open to talking things out.
4. “I’m not going to say this again.”
Besides making people feel threatened, according to George, this phrase is especially useless because it’s almost always a lie as most people say it over and over again in their arguments.
When it comes to communication during tense situations, repetition shows weakness.
Depending on the situation, sometimes we will have to stress our words and take a firm stance. Instead of saying, “I’m not going to say this again,” try saying in a calm voice — “Listen, it’s important that you get this point, so pay close attention to what I’m about to tell you.” It too may sound strong but it’s not threatening.
Or another technique is to list out what you want the person to do and encourage them to be willing to think it over.
The words, “Is there anything I could say that would get you to do A, B and C? I’d like to think so?” can be extremely persuasive as they imply that the person you are speaking with is indeed someone who is willing to calm down and have a civil conversation.
5. “What do you want me to do about it?”
Take a moment right now and say the words, “What do you want me to do about it?” in a variety of tones.
No matter how you say it you sound sarcastic, right?
If there was ever an opposite of a “problem solving” response, “What do you want me to do about it?” would be it.
Not only does it do absolutely nothing to positively advance a conversation. But according to George by saying this phrase you now have two problems: the one you began with and the one you just started by appearing to duck responsibility.
So instead of saying the words, “What do you want me to do about it?” take the hard steps of thinking creatively to help the person solve the problem they are facing. Or point the person in the direction of someone who can better help if the problem they are facing isn’t in your wheelhouse.
If neither of these options is available to you, offer an apology. An “I’m sorry, I really do not know what to recommend, but I wish I did, I’d like to help you,” goes a long way in establishing trust while taking some of the heat out of a stressful conversation.
6. “What’s your problem?”
Have you ever had a productive, civilized conversation after someone says the words, “What’s your problem?” or it’s dirty cousin *“What’s up your ss?”
Again, if you don’t like to be on the receiving end of other phrases don’t say them to other people.
The glaring problem with phrases like “What’s your problem?” is they put the problem immediately back onto the person who is in need of assistance.
Not only that but according to George, it signals this is a “you-versus-me” battle rather than an “us” discussion which can only escalate the temperature of an already hot situation.
No one likes to admit we have a problem or we are a problem. It makes us feel helpless and that we are a failure. So instead of going straight at someone like they are doing something wrong, choose to pad your language.
This is where the question, “What’s the matter?” can come in handy again. Or simply, “How can I help?”
7. “Why don’t you be reasonable?”
Have you ever suddenly become more reasonable when someone tells you to act more reasonably? If you’re anything like me, your answer is a resounding “NO.”
Much like the words, “Calm down,” the question “Why don’t you be reasonable?” implies someone is acting out of line and has more potential to only add fuel to an already hot fire.
Instead of having your words put people immediately on the defensive, George suggests first choosing words of reassurance then paraphrasing what the perceived problem is of the person in front of you.
According to George, the words, “Let me see if I understand your position…” or *“You are feeling X because of Y, is that correct?*” are worth their weight in gold.
This switch not only lets the person know you are working to better listen and understand them. But it also gives them the opportunity to clarify their stance so you can get to the true heart of their concerns.
Tying it all together
The theme that runs consistently throughout George’s recommendations is that empathy is the key to all successful human interactions.
According to George, empathy absorbs tension and if you take the time to not only listen to people but work hard to see them in the way they see themselves you can turn any negative situation into a positive outcome.
Our words hold power, both good and bad.
If you want to learn more about this topic you may also like — “11 Phrases Socially Aware People Don’t Say” which was recently featured in Business Insider.