20 Negative Words to Avoid in Business and Life

20 Negative Words to Avoid in Business and Life

Words come with definitions, but beyond a dictionary entry, words have multiple meanings and connotations that are designed to influence others and let them know what our intentions are or to help them understand what we are trying to convey.

The meanings of many words can change over time (check out the Urban Dictionary), but whether we are talking about business or interpersonal relationships, the words we choose can be construed as positive or negative -- and sometimes we use the same word, but the tone gives us the meaning. Knowing what vibe a word is giving others, in relation to the context the words are being used in, can help us either improve, motivate, and uplift others - or the same words can intimidate, damage, tear down, and scare people.

To focus on establishing and keeping positive relationships in work and life, you may want to consider avoiding these 20 negative words that only serve to intimidate others rather than bring out the best in them:

1. Browbeat

Because this word is often used in connection to bullying, browbeat can become an incredibly impactful word that others do not want to be associated with, so by using it in relation to their behavior they then are likened to a bully. Since it’s widely known that victims of bullying suffer from the effects of bullying, such as anger, depression, and anxiety, no one wants to be accused of being a browbeater. For the person being accused of being bullied, it makes them look like a weak person. In either context, it’s a negative word that doesn’t solve anything. Intimidation usage: "Wow you seem to like to be browbeat."

2. Enforce

This word contains exactly what it is meant to do – force. It’s about control and exerting power over others to get them to something. And, while it may work to tell people you are enforcing the law or rules at work or in life because they do what you say, it would be better to use a tactful approach that gets them to do what you ask because they want to do it. A word like this just involves scare tactics rather than encouraging a change in behavior. Intimidation usage: "Because the team did not finish this project I will have to enforce some new rules."

3. Forewarn

An article for iResearchNet noted that “psychologists have discovered that forewarning often leads to resistance, which is decreased persuasion in the direction of the influence attempt.” The resistance comes from the fact that no one wants to be threatened. Forewarn creates a negative environment because it is based on fear and ominous warnings that if they don’t do what they are told something bad will happen. It’s one of the least motivating approaches to getting people to do what you want. Intimidation usage: "Be forewarned that I expect this work done or there will be repercussions."

4. Formidable

The word, formidable, often evokes fear because it means you may not have a chance of winning against what is now deemed as an opponent. As noted on Vocabulary.com, “Such an enemy is one you dread, or perhaps respect or are awed by, because of its power, size, or capabilities.” Whether it is a colleague or spouse, you don’t want to look at them as the enemy or someone you are doing battle with; instead, the relationship you want is collaborative and about mutual respect and success. That’s why this negative word will never help to achieve a healthy partnership. Intimidation usage: "You will want to stay in my good graces because you will find that I am a formidable enemy."

5. Guilty

“Guilt and its handmaiden, shame, can paralyze us––or catalyze us into action,” states Psychology Today. Feeling guilty involves dwelling in the past and focusing on everything you may have done wrong. This can be paralyzing to the person who is laden with guilt and shame. When you use this term in relation to someone else, you are judging and encouraging them to focus on the wrong things plus elevating yourself above them. Instead, you should be helping them to put the past behind them and look ahead to a brighter future.  Intimidation usage: "If anything goes wrong you can always count on Joe to be the guilty one."

6. Hassle

Every day we deal with situations that bother, annoy, and stress us out. We typically refer to these situations as daily hassles. However, when we apply that term to people, the word can actually have more of a negative impact. That’s because no one wants to feel like they are causing another persons problems or be the reason for someone else’s stress. A hassle doesn’t help alleviate the stress or bother, but will only make someone feel bad. Intimidation usage: "Don't ask me any more questions; you are always a hassle." Or worse, "Why are you always a hassle?"

7. Imminent

The thought that something bad is likely to occur at any moment is one of the signs of anxiety. This anxiety can then end up causing physical illness, irritability, and depression. By using this word with others, you could be contributing to their anxiety, which may also inhibit their motivation, productivity, and positive state of mind. Again, it solves nothing to be a doomsayer and turn everyone into a "deer in the headlights" person. The better idea is to provide the tools and resources to help someone with their needs and to and take action. Intimidation usage: "You know it's imminent that he's going to be fired."

8. Incite

If you’ve been paying attention to the 2016 Presidential Election, then you’re already aware that Donald Trump has been known to incite crowds. Unless you’re a supporter, witnessing his audience get stirred up like that is a scary situation. The term, "incite," has also been used to describe other aggressive behavior like “inciting someone to violence.” It is the idea that you are stirring people’s emotions up and causing them to act out in relation to those emotions. This term is not typically used in positive ways like “inciting the team to victory” or “inciting someone to seek success.” Instead, a more positive word is used in these situations such as, "inspiring the team to victory." Inciting anything further illustrates the negative and unnecessary nature of this term. Intimidation usage: "You always incite anger in me."

9. Jaded

Let’s say that your boss has become cynical or has seemingly lost all enthusiasm for the business that he built. Is that someone you would rally behind? Do you trust them to lead you into the future? The term, jaded, is a synonym for cynical, which is already known to be a negative behavior. It is devoid of anything related to motivation or encouragement, and it also seems to convey a hopeless situation where things will never get better. Therefore, it’s not good for any type of relationship or working environment. Intimidation usage: "I can never trust your judgment because it's so jaded."

10. Low

The term, low, has more negative meanings than positive ones. It typically is associated with not having enough of something or containing little value. While it can be important to recognize deficiencies in things, it doesn’t work to apply the term to a person. When it’s used in relation to someone else, it is essentially belittling their value or position. Instead, you should be building others up and recognizing for the value they offer you, others, or an organization. Intimidation usage: "You may not come along. I dislike hanging out with low people."

11. Oblige

Obligations aren’t necessarily a terrible thing because this type of pressure can drive someone to generate amazing ideas or work. However, the problem is that forcing someone to do something can weigh heavily on someone and create unnecessary stress. This is especially true if a term like obliged is used on someone who already puts undue pressure on themselves to take on a world of responsibilities. Instead, it is better to ask someone or let them know you could use their help rather than resorting to a guilt-laden word like oblige. Intimidation usage: "You can't get off work right now, you are obliged to help me."

12. Provoke

Do you want to spend time around someone who is constantly pushing your buttons or just trying to get a rise out of you? Being provoked is not a great feeling because you know that you are letting someone get the best of you. In telling someone else that they are provoking you, it’s not a great way to get them to stop either. Instead, you just let them know how they can really get to you if they wanted to. Either way, provoke is a word that only results in bad behavior that increases conflict and decreases collaboration, respect, and productivity. Intimidation usage: "You always provoke me."

13. Quiet

Being quiet comes with a number of excellent traits, such as being a good listener and staying in touch with your feelings, but it doesn’t fit our cultural ideal. Barbara Markway, Ph. D noted I Psychology Today that quiet individuals are commonly viewed as victims or less desirable than those who are outgoing. The other negative aspect of this word is that when you tell someone else that you want them to be quiet, you are sending many negative messages. These include the idea that you are disinterested in what they have to say and that they should be relegated to a lower status in a relationship or team atmosphere. You are also discouraging them to share what could be valuable information or ideas, further devaluing them. Intimidation usage: "Be quiet." Or, "She's too quiet to be of any help with ideas."

14. Restrain

When you hear a word like restrain, what may come to mind is some type of physical item that holds a person down. For example, it could be how elderly patients were restrained in their nursing home. The idea is that they need to be controlled because they may harm themselves or others. Similar to the word, quiet, it gives off the impression that others should be in control, making those that are being restrained or told to restrain themselves feel useless or incompetent. The negativity in such a word de-motivates and discourages people that most likely could have made a good contribution. Intimidation usage: "If you people can't get the work done here, we are going to have to apply some restraints on your free time." Or, "Restrain your outbursts."

15. Subdue

Similar to the reasons why you should avoid the word, restrain, subdued is a word that does the same thing. It puts the person that it’s being directed at in an inferior position where they are being told they need someone else to control the situation or them. The other idea is that it makes that person feel as though something is wrong with them, which means they may not put the same effort into something they would have had they been told they had the freedom to explore an idea or take on a project at will. Intimidation usage: "If you don't calm down, I'll find a way to subdue you myself."

16. Threaten

This should be a fairly obvious selection. No one likes to be threatened or be accused of threatening others. It makes an instant “bad guy” out of someone. Using this word to say someone is a threat is another way to gain control of a situation by getting everyone on your side against this supposed bad person. It divides and strikes fear into others. In reality, the better choice is to ask and encourage others to get involved in something you need help with or that accomplishes what you want.  Intimidation usage: "You are a threat to our whole culture." Or, "He only responds if he's threatened."

17. Torment

Just like with threaten, if someone was tormenting you emotionally, mentally, or physically, then you would most likely want to sever that relationship rather than do what they want and continue to spend time with them. There’s no faster way to lose talent then to create a culture that uses threats and torture. Instead, you could focus on rewards and recognition to encourage people to do what you ask.  Intimidation usage: "If she doesn't get that work done, I will pick an extra job that will really torment her."

18. Unnerve

No one wants to purposely lose their cool. That’s why you need to remove yourself from situations or individuals that are able to unnerve you. It also doesn’t help to let someone else know that they do unnerve you or impact you in a way that sets you off. This negative word puts others in a bad light and divides people rather than encouraging them to work together. Rather than focusing on pushing buttons or letting others know they do that to you, choose a word that is focused on bringing out the positive in others or that makes them feel good. Intimidation usage: "Just the look of her is unnerving."

19. Warn

When you know that there is a hurricane warning or a colleague warning you that there’s going to be extra costs at your business, how do you feel? While you may appreciate the head’s up, inside you are probably starting to feel scared and anxious. There may also be feelings of helplessness in being given a warning. The word also can be viewed as a threat that comes with a punishment. Not matter what type of negative connotation it gives you, it’s a word that doesn’t help solve what’s coming. It’s much better to provide an alert and link it to words that share the actions that can be taken to alleviate the problem that lies ahead. Intimidation usage: "This is your last warning." Or, "If I have to warn you again, you are out."

20. Incapable

When using the word, incapable, in conjunction with another person, you are essentially telling them they can’t do something. And, in the process, what you are really accomplishing is a self-fulfilling prophecy for them if they believe you. Talking about one of the most discouraging words to use – whether it’s your children, spouse, or an employee. You are telling them that they are inferior and unsuccessful. The idea is that you want them to know they can do anything they put their heart and mind to doing. Rather than cutting them down, use encouraging words to help them improve and reach their true potential. Intimidation usage: "You seem incapable of producing good quality work.”

Keep It Positive

Before speaking, choose your words carefully. As this list illustrates, words can take on negative meanings that are powerful in their ability to achieve everything you most likely don’t want from another person. Seek out those positive words that are about encouraging and building up others, motivating them to do better, and firing up the passion to do better than their current best. In work and life, you will then find greater satisfaction, happiness, and success in your relationships.


About the Author

John Rampton is an entrepreneur, investor, online marketing guru and startup enthusiast. He is founder of the online payments company Due.

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