The Power of Words: Part 3 – Scary Words and Phrases

11 mins read

This article is written to discuss “scary” or stressful language in the workplace, how to remain calm in the face of it, and how to avoid using it when possible.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of some scary phrases at work. “We need to talk,” “see me in my office,” “there is going to be an investigation,” “a mistake was made,” “things need to change,” etc. Hearing these words and so many others send employees headlong into stress-mode, but do they need to?

While these phrases and more often accompany tougher weeks, difficult meetings, or changes to your daily routine, they are only words intended to communicate concepts. Sometimes these phrases are followed by high stressors, however an initial stress-response will not help with handling the situation. In fact, that lock-up feeling actually makes things more difficult! Until the full situation is discussed, any preconceived notions about what went wrong, whether you’re in trouble, and more, are detrimental to your communication.

What is your first response when presented with a word or phrase that stresses you out? Is it to lock up and start thinking of anything you could have done wrong? Is it to get defensive and begin shifting blame, trying to figure out what someone else did wrong? Maybe it’s to blame your supervisor or the one bringing this stressor to your door. If your initial response to scary conversation openers or phrases is to react emotionally in some way, try to take a moment and breathe.

Take a Moment, Think it Through

Often, scary phrases in the workplace are prefaces to needed action or correction, neither of which are inherently bad! When faced with these situations, be aware of the way the stress is impacting your body. Where are you feeling that stress, and how is it impacting your ability to think clearly? As always with communication, mindfulness is the first step in maintaining openness and clarity. Be open to what is being said to you. Rather than hearing a few choice words and responding emotionally, you can make the choice to slow your process down and hear what is being said. Phrases that preface a need for correction are an opportunity for growth! The correction discussed is not a personal confrontation, but a professional adjustment to ensure you are on the correct course. Words that come before action items are opportunities for development, to show what you’re capable of and strive for higher results!

Of course, not all scary words or phrases come before action or correction but if you apply these same ideas to those situations, your reaction and further action will go much smoother. Take the time to listen to what is being said, and react accordingly.

Remember: Conflict is not a bad thing! Conflict is two people with different boundaries coming together to reach a resolution.

4 Tips for Handling Stress in the Moment:1

1. Be Physically Aware

When you begin to stress at the thought of a difficult conversation or in reaction to scary phrases, your body’s physiology shifts. As you experience stress, your pulse races, your heart beats faster, and certain hormones (including cortisol and adrenaline) are released. Being aware of these physiological responses helps you to manage them, as it’s much easier to handle a situation when you know what is happening. Focus the energy of that stress into something productive and use the “adrenaline pop” to direct your nervous energy into applying yourself wholeheartedly to whatever action or correction needs to take place.

2. Speak to Yourself Calmly and Logically

Self-talk is one of the most important tools you have. When entering into a situation where scary phrases are anticipated, or after having heard something that worries or causes you stress, speak to yourself calmly, logically, and positively. You are fully capable of whatever action is needing to be done. You have likely done similar tasks in the past, and if you have not, you have all the tools and experience necessary to make this work – that’s why you were spoken to. Remember, whatever negative emotions you are feeling in response to the scary phrase, they do not dictate how you respond and how you move forward.

3. Breathe Deeply

Breathing deeply is one of those recommendations that we all hear quite often, but so few of us take the time to truly listen. In a moment of high stress, moments after, or right before anticipated stress, take 3 deep breaths while being conscious of your belly expanding and contracting. This ignites your parasympathetic nervous system, inducing a relaxation response which will allow you to think and breathe easier. Your parasympathetic nervous system, also known as “rest and digest” mode, is the opposite of “fight or flight.” When you ignite your parasympathetic nervous system, you allow your body to relax, your brain to operate without panic, and your actions to be thoughtful and direct. While breathing deeply, lower your shoulders, rotate your neck, or gently roll your shoulders to further loosen and relax the muscles that automatically tense during stressful moments.

4. Ask Questions

As always, the biggest key to effective communication is openness! Do not be afraid to ask questions! If you are given a correction, an action, or another phrase that causes you stress, ask for clarification. Chances are, the person you are communicating with wants you to achieve your highest potential, and by asking clarifying questions, you are assuring them that your goals are aligned. When you establish these communications and connections, you greatly reduce scary words and phrases coming your way because you are able to ask questions and have conversations. Those words and phrases may still be brought to your attention, but their impact on your stress levels will be much lower, if there is any impact at all.

Be Aware, Don’t Scare!

Now, sometimes you are not the one receiving scary phrases. You may need to be the one approaching an employee with action or correction items. Though you may be in this position today, you almost certainly have been on the other end of that conversation once or twice in your career. Go into these conversations remembering the stress of being approached with correction or calls for action. These conversations are necessary parts of ensuring your business is running smoothly and efficiently, and it is in your best interest to play your part in keeping them as low-stress as possible. As you approach your employees, be aware of the language you use, the way you phrase your words, and your tonality. By avoiding standard scary phrasing, you will connect with your employees on a deeper, more meaningful level, and get the results you are looking for!

According to Statistics Canada, 46% of Canadian workers reported feeling stress at work on a day-to-day basis, and 62% say that work is their main source of stress.2 The conversations you need to have with your employees are important, but should be approached with the remembrance and awareness that they are people with stresses of their own. When entering into scary or stressful conversations, try to project an aura of calm. Stress is contagious, and when someone palpably feels your tension, they will react to it!1 By modulating your emotions, and keeping your speaking voice gentle and controlled, your employees will gain much more from these important conversations and will go forward with direction and certainty rather than overwhelming stress or fear.

Stay tuned for the next instalment in The Power of Words series, Part 4: Nonviolent Communication in the Workplace.

1 Knight, Rebecca. “How to Handle Stress in the Moment.” Harvard Business Review.

2 Statistics Canada. “Work-Related Stress.”

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