Communication Roadblocks: What Not to Say and What to Say Instead

Communication roadblocks can prevent better leadership and smarter followership from developing in any organization. Building an organizational culture that strives for more positive and constructive communication with less negative and critical communication is key. Regardless of whether you have a leadership position or not, you will benefit from avoiding these communication roadblocks.

Table of Contents

NOTE: In addition to providing some examples of WHAT NOT TO SAY, you will also find suggested examples of WHAT TO SAY INSTEAD that will hopefully help you build more effective communication skills enabling you to avoid communication roadblocks.

Showing Power vs. Sharing Power

Avoid showing power by always ordering, directing, commanding, or telling someone to do something because YOU want it to be done. Ordering people to do something “because you said so!” tends to shut down communication and relationships. It can also make the person feel bad about themselves as if they can’t do anything right. When individuals become overly dependent on others always telling them “what to do and when to do it,” they start to feel like they actually need others telling them “what to do and when to do it” all the time. We ultimately want to empower others to figure things out for themselves, rather than simply show our power to always fix their problems. Lead with empathy and try to understand how the other person feels working with you vs. doing things for you.

Here are some examples of WHAT NOT TO SAY…
“Because I said so!”
“Don’t give me that!”
“I don’t want to hear it!”
“Do what I say!”
“I told you to do…”
“You must…”
“You will…”

Here are some examples of WHAT TO SAY INSTEAD…
“I need you to do…”
“Can you please do…”
“Would you be willing to do…”
“Let’s try this together…”
“What do you think we could make better?”

Always Advising vs. Intentionally Inquiring

Although it may not seem like it, always giving solutions or advice to a team member can be seen as a roadblock. Why you ask? Well, when we do this, we subconsciously communicate a lack of confidence in their ability to solve the problem they are facing. Over time, this could prevent them from even exploring other potential solutions and trying different methods altogether. Afterall, why should they when YOU will always be there telling them “what to do and when to do it.” When you always offer advice and suggestions, it could create dependency or resistance. Giving someone unsolicited advice or solutions to their problems all the time is often called “mansplaining” by many women. Robert Bolton, author of People Skills, believes that many times advice-giving represents what he calls an “interfere-iority complex.” The main problem he says is that: “Advice is often a basic insult to the intelligence of the other person. It implies a lack of confidence in the capacity of the person with the problem to understand and cope with his or her own difficulties.” An additional problem is that many times the person giving the advice rarely understands the full scope of the problem.

Here are some examples of WHAT NOT TO SAY…
“That shouldn’t make any difference!”
“You should just…”
“I don’t see why you don’t…”
“What I would do is…”
“Why don’t you…”
“Let me suggest…”
“That’s an easy problem to solve, just…”

Here are some examples of WHAT TO SAY INSTEAD…
“What are some of the things you have tried?”
“How do you think that would work for you?”
“What do you think about that idea?”
“Let me help you brainstorm some solutions…”
“I wonder what would happen if we…?”

Lecturing vs. Empathizing

When you try to persuade a team member by lecturing them with facts, logic, or your own opinions, it can come across as condescending. This kind of “teaching,” or “preaching,” often makes team members feel like you think they are inferior or that their opinion carries no weight. Furthermore, people rarely like to be proven wrong and will dig in their heels even more when presented with evidence to the contrary. They might even go to great lengths to discount YOUR “facts” over THEIR “facts.” Some people may choose to ignore your facts and act like they don’t care what anyone else has to say. Being heavy-handed with your team members not only ruins relationships, it also doesn’t inspire them to communicate. Be careful about always attempting to get someone on board by using logic and appealing to facts, without being understanding of the emotional factors at play. This can be especially true when someone is experiencing an emotional problem. If you try to use logic while ignoring emotion, the person may feel like you’re withdrawing from them during a crucial moment—and therefore pushing them away.

Here are some examples of WHAT NOT TO SAY…
“I don’t see any reason for…”
“I don’t know why you can’t just…”
“When I had to do that…”
“Doesn’t it make sense that…”
“Here’s where you’re wrong…”
“If you look at the facts…”

Here are some examples of WHAT TO SAY INSTEAD…
“How are you feeling about that?”
“Tell me more about what happened.”
“It sounds like you’re really upset about this…”
“This must be really tough for you…”
“I feel like I’m missing something, can you help me understand?”

Judging vs. Exploring

It’s easy to pass judgment on others when we hear about their problems but doing so all the time can make them feel worse. If we want to be effective team members, it’s important to resist the urge to judge, blame, or criticize. Negative criticism can also evoke countercriticism. Overly judging others will also encourage team members to keep their feelings to themselves. People often hold back from revealing their problems because they don’t want to be judged in a negative light. We all have a self-image that we want to protect, so when somebody points out our flaws, it can feel like an attack. We might even respond with anger and hostility, even if the other person is basically correct.

Here are some examples of WHAT NOT TO SAY…
“That’s a dumb idea!”
“When will you ever learn?”
“You aren’t thinking clearly…”
“You have nobody to blame but yourself…”
“I couldn’t disagree with you more…”

Here are some examples of WHAT TO SAY INSTEAD…
“What do you think would be a better way to handle that?”
“Let me see if I understand what you did. You…”
“Can you help me understand your thought process behind that?”
“That sounds like a really difficult situation, how do you think you can improve it?”
“It sounds like you’re really passionate about this, can you tell me more?”

Criticizing vs. Considering

Criticizing involves finding fault with someone or something. This is different than sharing feedback, which is offering a suggestion for improvement in a non-judgmental way. Criticism puts people on the defensive and usually results in their feeling threatened, resentful, and resistant to change. For example, a parent might say to their child, “You’re so lazy! Why can’t you be more like your sister?” Criticizing creates defensiveness, resistance, and resentment in team members and should be avoided.

Here are some examples of WHAT NOT TO SAY…
“You’re always…”
“You never…”
“Why can’t you…”
“What is wrong with you?”

Here are some examples of WHAT TO SAY INSTEAD…
“Can we talk about how…”
“I felt when you did that…”
“It sounds like you’re feeling…”
“What I need you to consider is…”

Interpreting vs. Asking

Be careful about always sharing responses that come across as analyzing, interpreting, diagnosing, and telling others what YOU think their motives are or why they’re doing or saying something. Constantly analyzing and diagnosing others can make them feel like you think you understand them better than they do themselves, which can come across as threatening. If your analysis is correct, the person may feel embarrassed at being exposed. If it’s incorrect, the person could become hurt or angry and resist future attempts to help. When we nitpick people apart all the time instead of asking questions, we end up making ourselves look arrogant in comparison. Messages like these tend to block communication and damage relationships.

Here are some examples of WHAT NOT TO SAY…
“You’re just feeling pressured!”
“You can see how that…!”
“Well, I believe that was…”
“You’re just trying to…”
“What your problem is…”
“You probably feel that way because…”

Here are some examples of WHAT TO SAY INSTEAD…
“I feel like you’re trying to tell me…”
“Is there something you’re not telling me?”
“It sounds like you’re feeling…”
“When you did that, I felt…”
“What I need from you is…”

“YOU” Messages vs. “I” Messages

When communicating with others try to avoid always starting your statements with “YOU…” When you do that, you’re implying that “YOU” (the other person) is the problem. Plus, it fails to see their responsibility to improve themselves or the situation they find themselves in. It can also come across as an accusation, as in “You did this (bad thing),” or “You are (another bad thing).” Using “I” messages is better to start with when you’re striving to share perspectives or points of view that might increase understanding. When you use statements about yourself and your feelings.

Here are some examples of WHAT NOT TO SAY…
“You need to be more organized.”
“You never seem to get your work done on time.”
“You’re always leaving your things lying around.”
“It’s your fault that we’re in this mess!”
“You always think that!”
“You never…”
“You should know better than that!”

Here are some examples of WHAT TO SAY INSTEAD…
“I feel like I need more help from you in staying organized.”
“I get overwhelmed when I see your work and mine is piling up.”
“It’s really frustrating for me when I trip over your things.”
“We’re in this mess because we both didn’t communicate well.”

Name-calling vs. Using Their Name

Name-calling is a form of bullying which can involve putting someone down or labeling them with a stereotype. The problem with name-calling, according to Robert Bolton, author of People Skills, is that “labeling prevents us from getting to know ourselves and other individuals: there is no longer a person before us—only a type.” Over time, this kind of name-calling can damage their self-image. Some people respond to it by becoming defensive: “I’m not a worry-wart.” Name-calling is especially likely to provoke defensiveness and lead to arguments instead of introspection, self-reflection, and improvement.

Here are some examples of WHAT NOT TO SAY…
“Look stupid…”
“You big chicken!”
“Spoiled brat!”
“All you men are so insensitive!”
“Okay, Miss Know-It-All…”

Here are some examples of WHAT TO SAY INSTEAD…
How about just using their actual preferred name “Jim…” or “Jane…”

Ridiculing vs. Relating

Like name-calling, ridiculing is not a healthy form of communication. In fact, ridiculing can also be a form of bullying. It involves making fun of someone or some situation in a hurtful way. For example, a team member might say to their leader, “This project is never going to work. You’re just wasting your time.” Ridiculing is unproductive and will only result in the team member feeling defensive and resentful.

Here are some examples of WHAT NOT TO SAY…
“That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard!”
“Are you serious?” (in a tone that communicates disbelief)
“You can’t be serious!” (in an incredulous tone)
“You’re a fool if you do!”
“How could you fall for that?!”

Here are some examples of WHAT TO SAY INSTEAD…
“I’m not sure if that will work, have you thought about…”
“That sounds really risky. What are your thoughts about that?”
“Before we try that, are there other options we might want to consider?”

Attacking Others vs. Mutual Understanding

Obviously, attacking someone when they are trying to communicate—physically or verbally—isn’t a helpful relationship-building or team-building approach. In our sound-bite-driven world, we tend to see this on social media and in the media in general. Sometimes simply interrupting someone all the time creates a communication attack. While you might believe you already “know what they need to hear,” or offer clarity to the conversation, the person you are interrupting may not see it that way. Too many people think domination is the key to convincing someone else to their point of view rather than helping others see things from a different point of view and increasing mutual understanding together.

Here are some examples of WHAT NOT TO SAY…
“If you had only listened…”
“I’ll teach you to say no to me!”
“Just shut your mouth!”

Here are some examples of WHAT TO SAY INSTEAD…
“Can you help me understand why you disagree?”
“It sounds like you’re feeling really strongly about this, can you tell me more?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t think I understand what you’re trying to say.”

Complaining vs. Improving

Complaining involves expressing displeasure about someone or something. It usually takes the form of griping, moaning, and whining and does nothing to improve the situation. For example, a team member might say to their leader, “This project is taking way too long. I’m never going to meet my deadline!” Complaining is contagious and can quickly bring down the morale of an entire organization. It should be avoided. And especially as a leader, you want to set a positive example. So, whenever you’re tempted to complain about something stop and think about how that negative example might not be the kind of vibe you want to send out into your organization. Afterall, if you start complaining, others will start complaining, and the pile-on effect will be more negativity.

Here are some examples of WHAT NOT TO SAY…
“This sucks!”
“I can’t stand this…”
“Why does this always happen

Here are some examples of WHAT TO SAY INSTEAD…
“I feel really frustrated when…”
“It sounds like you’re feeling really upset about this, what can I do to help?”
“Do you want to vent for a minute, or do you want me to try and problem-solve with you?”

Avoiding vs. Communicating Without Confrontation

Avoiding communication all together because perhaps you are concerned about how someone might receive the information or the perspective you care to share is not helpful. Many people just change the subject to avoid having to offer ideas, insights, or sharing perceptions that might counter what the other person is saying. Certainly at times in polite company, and to avoid making a scene, this might be appropriate. Yet, when striving to create a better organization or relationship, it is important to find the right time and place to communicate without confrontation.

Here are some examples of WHAT NOT TO SAY…
“Don’t give me that!”
“Now just don’t get upset about it!”
“Let’s get off that subject!”
“I don’t want to get involved.”
“It’s not my place to say.”
“This isn’t really my area of expertise.”

Here are some examples of WHAT TO SAY INSTEAD…
I feel ____________ about ____________ because ____________
“Can we talk about this ____________ at a better time and place that would work?

Withholding vs. Sharing Key Information

Withholding key information is a form of communication that happens when someone deliberately keeps information from others. It can be difficult to detect because it’s usually subtle. For example, a team member might say to their leader, “I’m not sure if that will work.” They withhold information by not offering their full opinion or by leaving out vital details. Withholding information can create mistrust and frustration within a team. It’s important to be open and honest with each other to ensure that everyone is on the same page.

Here are some examples of WHAT NOT TO SAY…
“I’m not sure if that will work.” (without offering any explanation)
“I don’t know, what do you think?” (when you have a strong opinion)
“It might work, but…” (followed by an explanation of why it won’t work)
Or, the ultimate example of withholding information—the silent treatment! (Saying absolutely nothing!)

Here are some examples of WHAT TO SAY INSTEAD…
“I’m not sure if that will work because…” (offer simple cause-and-effect point)
“In my opinion, I don’t think that will work because…” (build case to consider alternative)
“I’m hesitant about that because…” (politely share your concerns)

False Reassurance vs. True Empathy

It’s easy to want to make somebody feel better by downplaying their emotions, but this is not always the best course of action. When someone comes to you with a problem, try your best not to simply offer false reassurance. This might come across as though you don’t understand the magnitude of their feelings (“You wouldn’t say that if you knew how strongly I feel.”) Sometimes, we try to avoid hearing another person’s negative emotions by reassuring them. This gives the message that you don’t accept how they are feeling. Reassurances can also be interpreted as a subtle and indirect way of trying to change the person.

Here are some examples of WHAT NOT TO SAY…
“I’m sure everything will work out fine.”
“I’m sure you won’t mind!”
“Don’t worry…”
“Look on the bright side…”
“Everyone goes through this…”

Here are some examples of WHAT TO SAY INSTEAD…
“I’m sorry that you’re going through this.”
“That sounds really difficult/ upsetting.”
“Thank you for telling me how you feel.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?” (If yes, do it! If no, say so and mean it.)

Generic Praise vs. Specific Support

We tend to think that if we give praise and positive comments, team members will feel better about the person giving the praise. However, this isn’t always the case. Especially when the praise we give is generic. In fact, when the person is already feeling negative, this type of generic praise can sometimes backfire and make things worse. If the praise doesn’t fit with the way they see themselves, it might lead to denial. Plus, if generic praise is offered too frequently, its absence might be interpreted as criticism. Praise can also come across as being manipulative or a subtle way of influencing others to do what you want them to do. Overusing too much praise, creates the risk of potentially making someone so dependent on your praise that they cannot function without constant approval from you—or others. They turn into praise junkies who always needs consistent affirmation from others to feel confident in their own ability or choices.

Here are some examples of WHAT NOT TO SAY…
Nonspecific generic praise or support such as…
“That’s great!”
“Good for you!”
“You’re awesome!”
“I think you did exactly the right thing!”
“I couldn’t agree more…”
“The same thing happened to me…”

Here are some examples of WHAT TO SAY INSTEAD…
Specific praise or support such as…
“I was impressed with the way you handled that specific situation.” (with relevant details)
“Your presentation about (insert specific topic) was one of the best I’ve seen.”
“That last melody you played was super expressive with crescendos and decrescendos.”
“You have a lot of excellent ideas” (that relate to the specific issue of…)
“I was really touched by your story” (specifically about…)
“That was a difficult thing to do, and you did it well.” (relate to the specific thing they did)

YOU MIGHT ALSO ASK what they specifically liked best about how they did something. This will encourage self-reflection and help them see what they did well.

Now to be clear, there may be specific times that do call for immediate direction, advising, and interpreting for others. You might even find yourself in a situation where withholding information is developmentally appropriate for the person or group you are working with. Consider such extreme examples of a child playing in the street—unaware of an oncoming car. Or how you might share information with adults, so they better understand the context of a situation vs. when you are talking to preschoolers. But when you are building an organizational culture that strives for more positive and constructive communication with less negative and critical communication, avoiding these communication roadblocks will be key to nurturing better leadership and smarter followership from everyone in your organization.


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Dinkmeyer Sr., D., McKay, G. D., & Dinkmeyer Jr., D. (2007). The Parent’s Handbook: Systematic Training for Effective Parenting. Elkins, WV: STEP Publishers. ISBN 9780979554209

Dinkmeyer Sr., D., McKay, G. D., & Dinkmeyer Jr., D. (1996). Raising a Responsible Child: How to Prepare Your Child for Today’s Complex World. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 9780684815169

Faber, A., & Mazlish, E. (2012). How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 9781451663877

Glenn, H. S., & Nelsen, J. (1989). Raising Self-Reliant Children In a Self-Indulgent World. Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing. ISBN 9780914629641

Gordon, T. (2001). L.E.T. Leader Effectiveness Training (Revised). New York, NY: Penguin. ISBN 9780399527135

Matthews, A. (1991). Making Friends: A Guide to Getting Along with People. Los Angeles, CA: Price Stern Sloan, Inc. ISBN 9780843129694

Wise, W., & Littlefield, C. (2017). Ask Powerful Questions: Create Conversations That Matter. Createspace Independent Publishing Platform. ISBN 9781545322994

Fran Kick

FRAN KICK works with corporate and education organizations, groups, and associations that want to develop better leaders and smarter followers for faster long-term results. As an author, educational consultant, and professional speaker, he always shares relevant research, real-world insights, and actionable ideas YOU can implement to motivate yourself. So you can Kick It In and Take the Lead at work, in school, at home, and in life!