3 Times You Think You're Being Nice—But You Actually Just Sound Passive-Aggressive
You’re a nice person—and you never want anyone to think otherwise, especially not your co-workers, the lovely people you sit next to five days a week.
So, in an effort to always be kind, you water down feedback by saying things like, “Maybe it’s just me, but…” And while those kinds of comment qualifiers are usually coming from a good place, chances are the person receiving it won’t take it that way. They’ll think you’re just being passive-aggressive and not-so-subtly hiding what you’re really trying to say.
To prevent you from ever being that person, here are three phrases you should avoid in meetings based on my very own (and very common) experiences—plus, bonus, I tell you how to say what you’re thinking in a more straightforward, but polite way.
1. “I Was Surprised/Confused/Curious About…”
What the Person Hears: “You’re Wrong.”
I worked with a woman who often tried disguise her criticism in this way. Rather than just being upfront that she didn’t quite follow my line of thinking, she’d attempt to come across as truly surprised by what I’d said.
While she might’ve done this in an attempt to soften the blow, I never heard it like that. Instead, I took it as a stab in the back because my boss was in attendance—and that feeling led me to promptly ignore her feedback. Which was unfortunate, because I’m pretty sure she often had a point.
What to Say Instead
“I thought X was different, because Y. Can you walk me through your steps?”
2. “Oh, I Thought You Understood…”
What the Person Hears: “You Did it Wrong Because You’re Stupid.”
I’ve run into this a few times when working with larger, cross-functional teams. Inevitably, there would be a few different translations of a project’s goals. And if everyone wasn’t communicating well, wires would get crossed and the project would get off track. When the time came to present our results—which were inevitably wrong—someone would exclaim, “Oh no, I thought you understood the objective!” Obviously no one’s happy in this situation, so saying this just adds fuel to the fire and prevents people from gaining any insight from the work that was done—even if it wasn’t quite right.
What to Say Instead
“You took this in a different direction than I initially intended, but let’s talk about what you found, see if it can make this work, and if not, what the next steps will be.”
What the Person Hears: “I Think You’re an Idiot.”
While technically this word shouldn’t be offensive, I’ve found that just about anytime someone uses it, they’re just hedging their comments. A colleague once told me she was “actually impressed,” with an article I’d recently written. Even if that was really the case, I didn’t take it as a compliment, but rather as an insult. (Translation: “I didn’t think you could do that, so I was surprised when I was impressed with your article.”) Such a small word, such a big impact!
What to Say Instead
In this case, you can actually just remove the actually from whatever you’re about to say.
Being—or appearing—passive aggressive can really sneak up on you. When we try to minimize criticism, things can easily go awry. Rather than couching your constructive criticism in confusing language, just come out and say it—politely. Your colleagues will appreciate your candor, and you’ll avoid being labeled as the worst person to meet with in the office.
Jennifer Winter is a freelance writer, editor and career consultant. She translates her 14-years of corporate combat experience to help others navigate their own careers, and become advocates for their own success. Need help negotiating that raise or writing the perfect email to your boss? Jennifer’s your girl. Find out more about her services on her blog, FearLessJenn or follow her on Twitter @fearlessjenn.More from this Author