Tackling Toxic Talk

To begin 2018 I offer two pieces on how to counter talk that undercuts and damages our ability to interact in constructive ways. This first one considers how to stop toxic talk in the work place. The next one explores how to handle talk that cuts close to people’s core: degrading comments about race, ethnicity, gender, age and sexual orientation. 

I wish you a wonderful New Year,


“Public statements are not private,” asserts a respected colleague and friend, Ron White, Leadership Program Manager at the Humboldt Area Foundation.

When someone says something hurtful or harmful to two or more people, it is public, not private and should be dealt with in public even if the group numbers three people around a table at work, thirty in a meeting, or 300 in an auditorium.

When words are hurtful or harmful to individuals or groups they not only cause pain, they isolate people, damage their reputations and potentially their self-respect. They plant seeds for destructive communication in future. When allowed to stand without challenge, they also communicate that it is okay to demean others.

I don’t know of anyone who wants to work in settings where toxic talk is a norm.

Such talk creates an unsafe environment that diminishes people’s desire to participate and destroys any commitment they might have had to the group, organization or community.

It is risky to tackle words that discredit or devalue others. They can be turned back on you. However, if we want to work in civil spaces, then it’s up to each of us to stand up and publicly challenge such talk.

What is the toxic talk you hear in your organization? “Our managers are clueless.” “HR is just a bunch of bleeding hearts.” “Sales people are b-s artists.” “Manufacturing is living in the dark ages.” “Millennials only care about themselves.” “Old-timers are dinosaurs holding this company back.”

Although such things are sometimes said in jest, they can still damage the tone of interactions.

State your objections to such slams when and where they are spoken. “I take issue with what you said. I think your words undermine the collaborative camaraderie we are trying to develop among us. I don’t want anyone in this organization to feel as if they are not a valued part of our firm.”

If it seems appropriate add, “If there’s a problem, let’s figure out what it is and deal with it. Name calling is not helpful.”

Notice that this countering does not include reciprocal name-calling. The speaker owns his or her own perspective by making “I” statements. Make sure the tone in which you object does sound like a counter punch. If the target of the demeaning words is in the room, the speaker could ask the subject of the offensive comment to respond first (“I wonder how Sam from sales feels about what you just said.”) or, after countering the offensive comment ask him or her to weigh in (“I jumped in on this, Sam, what might you want to say in response to what has been said?”)

If you want to contribute to creating or maintaining an open, honest, and collaborative environment at work, you will need to tackle the toxic talk that tends to create closed and competitive environments where honest talk occurs behind closed doors and frequently engenders an “us” and a “them.”

For further tips, read the Jan. 24 blog.

Mary’s award-winning book “Talk Matters! Saving the World One Word at a Time” is available.  Click here to purchase it.

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