Words That Don’t Work

Communication is at the core of all that we do as human beings. While verbal interaction may seem to come naturally, it is a rich and complex process. Communication requires us to be aware of and tuned into thousands of data points from nonverbal cues to gestures, and even — subtle verbal cues. 

While most people can relate to being repelled by various topics of discussion — are there certain words that stop communication from occurring? Words that, when used, cause our minds to close, our mouths to shut and our brains to mentally pack up shop? 

New findings from a pilot study conducted by Target Training International’s Center for Applied Cognitive Research suggests the way we communicate with one another and the words we choose are vitally important. In fact, what seems to be critical is avoiding the wrong words: words that seem to fit the discussion from our point of view, may actually result in negative reactions when interpreted by others. 

Every person has a set of words, based on their dominant behavioral style, that when heard may evoke a precognitive negative reaction in the brain. Immediately upon hearing that word and before a person can even process their thoughts, their brain has initiated a stress reaction and possible avoidance. 

When a word that doesn’t work is uttered, it can shut down communication before it’s started, create unnecessary barriers and steadily erode otherwise functional relationships.

We originally began studying and compiling these sets of evocative words three decades ago as part of our research into behavioral styles, which is largely based on the research of William Moulton Marston. Identifying behavioral styles was only one aspect of our work. Helping individuals both appreciate and communicate with people who shared their style and those who have a different style has always been a critical focus of our work. Success in communicating between the styles is crucial for building relationships, forming critical alliances and establishing positive rapport. 

Based on our early research of each style, we identified sets of words that would spur negative reactions in people of different behavioral styles. These words were included in our assessment reports and support materials as words best avoided for each type. Since then, the words have been featured in our Success Insights® wheels and taught as best practices for communicating clearly and effectively.

 As an extension of our neurological validation research, we decided to examine our list of behavioral words and see if we could correlate brain responses. Our original intent was to examine words that do work, but the data showed words that don’t work evoked even stronger responses. Through our research, we observed negative responses to word sets in each of the four primary behavioral styles of Dominance, Influence, Steadiness and Compliance (DISC).

Download the white paper here