I’m guessing you’ve heard this phrase before. Either it came out of someone else’s mouth, or you said it: “Don’t take this the wrong way, but…” I’m also guessing you know what follows the “but”: an awkward cliché or unflattering feedback, perhaps even a downright insulting or blatantly bigoted or sexist statement. Common examples include: “you talk too loud,” “people think you’re aggressive,” “you’re so articulate and competent” or “you’re overly emotional.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way” is a poisonous preamble that should be eliminated from interpersonal communication, especially in the workplace. Here’s why:
- This phrase signals that the speaker knows what follows is inappropriate, perhaps offensive. It’s a gesture designed – intentionally or not – to give the speaker carte blanche to say inappropriate or offensive words.
- This phrase places all responsibility for the speaker’s impact on the receiver. Speakers exempt themselves from all accountability for what they say.
- This phrase is an exercise in coercive “power over.” Would you tell your boss, a respected elder, or other authority figure “don’t take this the wrong way, but…”? I doubt it.
- There is no such thing as “the wrong way.” The receiver is going to take the speaker’s words the way they take it. No one has the right to legislate or dictate someone else’s feelings or reactions. What the speaker really means is, “don’t take this in a way that I don’t mean, or that makes me look like a bad person.” However, it’s the speaker’s responsibility to communicate in a way that aligns with their meaning and come across like a good person, not the receiver’s.
“Don’t take this the wrong way” can be used consciously to manipulate others and inappropriately leverage power, but it’s most often used unconsciously by well-intended people to communicate a sensitive idea or to deliver uncomfortable feedback. This is especially likely in conversations across differences like race, gender, sexual orientation and social class. But rather than softening an uncomfortable message, “don’t take this the wrong way” actually communicates disrespect, impedes dialogue and erodes trust.
If the intent is to soften difficult communication, provide context, and come across as a good person, try these approaches instead:
Own and express your own anxiety: “It’s uncomfortable for me to say this out loud, and I’m not sure how it’s going to come across to you.” Then say the rest without saying “but” first.
- Example: It’s uncomfortable for me to say this out loud, and I’m not sure how it’s going to come across to you. I’ve heard from some of our customers that they see you as aggressive. I’d like to give you some specific examples, then problem solve together.
Take responsibility for your words: “I want to give you some feedback to help you succeed.” [Insert uncomfortable words]. “I realize that may come across as [acknowledge potential negative impact on the receiver].” Express next steps.
- Example: I want to give you some feedback to help you succeed. I’m hearing from customers that you’re being aggressive with them. I realize that feedback may come across as insulting, especially coming from your male boss. I’d like to give you some specific examples, then problem solve together.
Frame what you’re going to say, using your knowledge about diversity and intercultural communication. “I understand that [insert knowledge or stereotype here].” Don’t say “but”. “My intention is to [be transparent about your goal for the communication].”
- Example: I understand that there’s a stereotype about women being seen as “aggressive” when they’re confident go-getters. My intention is to give you some specific feedback about how our customers experience you this way, then problem solve together to get better results.
Silence. If you know a certain idea, stereotype or cliché can be triggering, potentially insulting, or inappropriate, don’t say it at all. This includes during casual, informal office conversation.
Don’t take this the wrong way, Silvia, but you are so loud and aggressive for a woman!Say nothing instead.
Intent does not equal impact. Having good intentions isn’t enough to be effective and produce excellence, even as a leader. It requires awareness, knowledge and skills like these to communicate effectively across differences and have the positive impact that matches your intent.
Susana Rinderle is president of Susana Rinderle Consulting LLC. Comment below or email email@example.com.