Culture at Work Home Page

Culture at Work

Conflict Resolution Skills

Our Services
Negotiation & Conflict
Culture at Work
Other pages in this series:
» Hostile Language
» Conflict Approaches
» 5 Styles
» Preparing to Confront
Also of interest:
» Facilitating language difficulties

Identifying and Responding to to Hostile Language

Recognizing Hostile Speech

One of the most important skills of a mediator or a negotiator, is to recognize hostile, escalating language and know how to quickly deflect or cool it down. Linguist and novelist Suzette Haden Elgin discusses the connections between language and conflict in her many books--well worth reading for anyone who finds themselves handling hot conversations.
  • Strongly stressing particular words:
    How DARE you. That's what YOU say.

  • Using words that strongly identify people and objects
    YOU have no business... I would never do that. MY money, THAT woman, this BOYFRIEND of YOURS.

  • Labeling someone's intent or character.
    You are a slob. That company is just plain greedy!

Recognizing language that escalates

Acknowledging that there are times when escalating a conflict is the appropriate thing to do, if your ultimate goal is discussion and some kind of mutual agreement, how you bring that conflict into the open and force others to deal with it--the language you choose, the process you follow--will make or break your chances of productive engagement.

  • Blaming others.
  • Being over-apologetic or accommodating. "That's okay, you just go ahead and have a good time without me."
  • Asserting one's rights, stating one's perspective with absolute certainty, globalizing (what's true for me is true for everyone else).
    Everyone knows that he steals. No one has a right to talk to me like that.
  • Attacking someone's personality or morality, someone's motivations. You knew we had a different plan yet you went ahead unilaterally just to spite everyone. That manager is out to get us. I know you meant well, dear, but you lack judgment.


Before you know it, hostile language can hook you and draw you into an escalating argument (how did we get here?) where you are fighting fire with fire.

More effective (though not always as emotionally satisfying) is to fight fire with water. Take a breath, and instead:

  • Listen to what is true for this person at this moment.

  • Acknowledge their reality (this does not mean agreeing with it!): For you, touching those funds goes against the promises you made your father.

  • Keep your voice and body relaxed, open, quiet, friendly.

  • Use personal language if you want to make a strong connection: "I can tell that you're really worried about money, James." "Deborah, you've been working hard to figure all this out, and I understand you are frustrated."
  • Use general / impersonal statements to lower the tension level: "Lots of older women worry about money when they have a family members who are also having difficulties.""Some families have found this solution lowers the pressure on everyone. " "It can be hard to have this kind of discussion when everyone cares so much."

  • When labels and accusations are flying, ask them to describe the offending person's behavior: "You say the aide is irresponsible-- can you give me some examples?" "What happened in our Monday meeting that upset you?"

Our Services
Negotiation & Conflict
Culture at Work
© 1997-2003 Jennifer E. Beer Fair use policy

»» Responding to Hostile Language