7 Ugly Phrases We Might Use in Meetings

Books Organizational leadership Respect


Key Point: Why do we often think meetings suck? Well sometimes it comes down to the practical matters related to meeting organization including but not limited to agenda clarity, process, logistics, etc. And frankly these are reasonably easy to fix. One might think when we intentionally get together, it should ideally be a wonderful source of energy, ideas, and collegiality. We know it doesn’t always work out that way. Meetings are often a place where people jockey for position, work out disagreements (nicely or not-so-nicely), and hurt each other’s feelings. Why? 

A very astute business leader who spends a lot of time in meetings, recently forwarded me an article written by Gretchen Rubin, the New York Times best selling author and journalist of The Happiness Project. Rubin’s perspective brings light to the impact of seven “ugly” phrases we may employ consciously and/or unconsciously at meetings. As she notes: “If you’re feeling annoyed or undermined at a meeting, consider whether any of these strategies are being aimed at you. And if you don’t want to annoy or undermine other people, avoid talking this way:

1. ‘I don’t need all the details. Let’s just get to the bottom line.’ The speaker implies that others are quibblers and small-minded technicians, while deflecting the possible need to master complicated details himself.

2. ‘Well, these are the facts.’ The speaker emphasizes that she attends to hard facts, while implying that others are distracted by prejudice, sentiment, or assumption.

3. ‘You might be right.’ The speaker seems open-minded while simultaneously undermining someone else’s authority and credibility.

4. ‘I’m wondering about ____. Pat, please get back to us on this.’ The speaker demonstrates his habit of reasoned decision-making, while making Pat (who may not actually report to him) do the necessary work and report back.

5. ‘You did a great job on that, Pat!’ The speaker shows a positive attitude, while showing that she’s in the position to judge and condescend to Pat. (I must admit, I remember one incident where I did this very consciously. I was furious at someone, and at the next big meeting that we both attended; I gushingly complimented him in a way that drove him nuts.)

6. ‘I think what Pat is trying to say is…’ The speaker shows that he’s a good listener and gives credit to others, while demonstrating that he can take Pat’s simple thought further than Pat could.

7. ‘I can see why you might think that.’ Variant: ‘I used to think that, too.’ The speaker sounds sympathetic, while indicating that she’s moved far ahead in understanding.

Of course, a person could say all these things without being undermining. It depends on context and motivation. Still, it’s useful to think about how seemingly innocuous comments might carry an edge.” 

Character Moves: 

  1. Think of the language and approach you use in meetings regarding REALLY listening to others. Most of the examples above minimize effective listening. Sincere questions to develop a clear understanding are usually more effective. 
  2. It’s often more helpful to declare your personal view and why you feel a certain way without qualifying it in the context of others. Also avoid inappropriately using the conjunction “BUT.” Most of us know that “but” means: Everything before “but” is “wrong.” For example, “I know you think that way, but…” or “I hear what you’re saying, but…” Using “AND” is a better conjunction AND It has to be sincere or it is just “but” in disguise. 
  3. Passion and emotion are important. And sometimes that passion puts our ego into overdrive in a meeting involving hot topics. (This is a personal challenge for me). When our ego tells us it’s important to “win” our viewpoint, our ears seems to fold into our heads and our mouth becomes the ego’s best buddy. Listening goes out the window and it is very easy to slip into one or more of the seven “ugly” phrases Rubin highlights above. Have the self-awareness when your ego revs up to take a breath and get back to better listening. (I find this hard to do sometimes… Especially when aided and abetted by copious amounts of caffeine).

Meeting happiness in The Triangle,


One Millennial View: I enjoy meetings. In my office they’re EXTREMELY rare… We openly discuss our business all day long, but there are hardly any structured meetings, so they feel special when they do happen. A poorly structured meeting is therefore extremely disappointing. When I attend a meeting, I want the team leader to express a clear goal of what needs to be accomplished through clear talking points… As an employee, I want to be able to riff, brainstorm and contribute without it being irrationally scrutinized. And nothing is more frustrating than radio silence while the clock ticks. I’d rather hear the world’s worst idea, than no idea. If you are lucky enough to have normally scheduled meetings, try not to mess them up with avoidable nonsense.

– Garrett 

Edited and published by Garrett Rubis