Communication is at the top of the long list of helpful skills for making partnerships and teams more effective. Being able to clearly and openly discuss problems and opportunities with the people around you makes it possible for those problems to be resolved and to take advantage of those opportunities. Often, though, I see people speaking in a sort of code with each other: an irritating blend of passive aggression and obfuscation designed to remove responsibility from the speaker, but really leading to frustration and miscommunication and making the speaker sound like a jerk.
How do you know if you sound like a jerk? Here are the top three examples.
"I'm just kidding."
I'm a big fan of humor. Give me a good dad-pun or dirty limerick any day. But I often see people using jokes, or something like jokes, to disguise real frustration. "Alan is such a moron. I'm just kidding!" or "Sandy couldn't put together a annual report to save her life. I'm just kidding!" Jokes are fun! They build camaraderie. But if you have to say it's a joke, it's probably not funny. And if you are using jokes as a substitute for talking directly with people about your frustrations, you're being passive aggressive and you sound like a jerk.
"Do we have a problem?"
Well, we didn't before, but now we do. Normally, I encourage all of my clients to check and recheck their assumptions. Do you think there might be a problem here? Why don't you ask someone involved? But again, this question is usually used rhetorically and often just means "What's your problem?" There's nothing wrong with checking to see if there's an issue that should be addressed, and there's nothing wrong with pointing out that there is an issue to address, but this is a statement that naturally puts people on the defensive. It implies that the person you're speaking to is overreacting and you are just patronizing them. Neither of those attitudes will win you any favor or solve the problem at hand. And you sound like a jerk.
"Calm down." or "Relax."
Never in the history of the world has someone been told to calm down and then actually done it. In fact, this is one of the best ways to escalate the emotion in the room. You may be approaching this non-calm person out of genuine concern, but telling them to relax is only going to make them more anxious about their anxiety. More than likely, though, telling someone to "calm down" is more about alleviating your anxiety about their emotion than it is about addressing their concern. Saying "relax" just means that you think their issue isn't as important as they think it is. That minimizes the person you're speaking with and prevents the issue from being addressed. "Hey, that nuclear power plant meltdown seemed like a pretty big deal until someone told me to calm down." It's selfish to assume that your anxiety trumps the anxiety of those around you, and it makes you sound like a jerk.
So there you have it, three ways to sound like a jerk and ruin lines of communication with your associates. There are many other examples of ways that you can diminish the people around you and hurt your own reputation, but if they sound anything like the phrases above, you're not going to achieve your goals or the goals of your organization. And you'll sound like a jerk.
**Erika Weed is a doctoral candidate at The George Washington University, studying leadership and trying to reconcile the seemingly competing goals of happiness and success, for herself and others.