‘Hot’ language to watch out for: examples

Value-judgments about Self

A value-judgment about self is likely to be a hot word. Imagine that you have just told your boss that you consider yourself particularly expert at X. Later in the conversation you hear them refer to your expertise as ‘quite good’. If this does not make you bristle, come up with another ‘positive’ word that would annoy you – pretty good, reasonably good, not-bad-at, and competent? By now you should fully understand the dangers in the re-interpretation of hot-words!

Action Words about Self

These follow exactly the pattern of value-judgments about self. If someone chooses to use the phrase:

I directed the program personally

a non-reflective reference to that by you will probably upset them! For example:

Of course you had some involvement in that program didn’t you?

It is best to re-use their word. If you object, then just leave out the verb completely:

With your intimate knowledge of the program could you offer some thoughts about…

 Similar action words that may be ‘hot’ will include: 

  • Achieved
  • Created
  • Succeeded
  • Co-worked
  • Motivated
  • Developed
  • Managed
  • Led
  • Championed
  • Partnered
  • Thought-led

Named emotions

Emotional expression may include the use of specific names of emotions. These are likely to have very specific and individual meanings for a given person in a given situation. Alter these at your peril! Here are some examples of non-reflective dialogue:

Tom:    I was devastated by the results

NFD:    That must have been traumatic for you


Tom:    I consider that a less than perfect outcome

NFD:    So tell me more about this failure?


Tom:    I am upset by what she said in the open forum

NFD:    What was it she said to unbalance you like that?


For some people any of these answers might work, for others their interpretation of this new word in the conversation is likely to be met with annoyance and a tangential and unproductive dialogue.

Traumatic has a direct association with the verb ‘traumatized’ which some will find more of a weakness than the being ‘devastated’ and vice versa of course.

Similarly, the words unbalance or unbalanced may suggest mental aberrations. Considering is not an emotion but is probably a signal that the individual has semantic[2] attachment with the word because their EQ is low.

The use of the word ‘failure’ instead of ‘upset’ may seem overly aggressive and judgmental. If you felt strongly that the phrase, ‘less than perfect outcome’ was understated then you might ask:

Tom, you say that the outcome was less than perfect and I have to agree with you. But, could you summarize the affects in detail for me?

A question like this will encourage the individual to start processing information. If they were kidding themselves, they will soon have a more productive sense of reality.

Sensory Words

These are analogous situations to those of expressed emotion. They describe how a person received information and many people have a very personal interpretation for these words and may reject any other descriptor at all. Beware of interpreting them and beware also of introducing a sensory word that they have not used:

Tom:    I was frankly disappointed by Irene’s lack of professionalism

NRD:   I understand that you felt disappointed

Tom:    What have feelings to do with it?


Tom:    In my estimation she wished to control the activities of the division any way she could

NRD:   What made you interpret Irene that way?

Tom:    I did not interpret at all, I was aware of specifics.


Tom:    I saw exactly what she did.

NRD:   You think she made a sign with her finger?

Tom:    No. I saw exactly that she made that sign.


In this case, as we will see below, the word ‘exactly’ is also a hot-word. When you have two or more sensory words in a sentence be sure to get them all right as this is likely to be a highly charged issue for that individual.


It is a matter of professional and personal etiquette whether you reflect expletives. However, the same rules apply – do not change the word for another, instead, replace the word using ‘that’ as in:

Tom, when she said that do you think anyone else heard her?

Beware of patronizing:

Tom I hear that you feel strongly

since the response may be:

I don’t feel strongly I am completely livid by what has been done to me!

Sometimes there may be a case for adjourning a meeting and letting the steam run out.

 Tom, excuse me a minute but I need to take a comfort break, sorry. I shall not be very long. May I get you a coffee while I am out of the office?

 The question helps Tom process something else and deflects their attention for a moment.  The pause, with luck, will enable them to reflect, let the heat out and produce a more productive situation when you return.

Words Sounding Out-of-Place

We are not speaking of words used incorrectly out of ignorance. Even then, reflecting the word as they use it is probably better than correcting them pointedly. Hot-words may be hot simply because of the history of the individual or because the word is used in their cultural set. They may be more or less sensitized to them. If you do not know, the safe bet is to re-use that word. You will notice these words because they seem out of place. Reflect them unless the word creates in them a particularly unhelpful mental state. The clue to that will be their state when they use the word, particularly if it is stressed, spat out or if they are agitated.

If you are uncomfortable dealing with such situations then avoid re-use of the word or phrase that they used. Instead, say something like:

Tom, I believe I have heard you correctly. What might I do to help you in this situation do you think?

Precision Words

Words of measurement whether about their own work or others may be hot and are best reflected back.

Tom:    I should say the productive impact was rather small

NRD:   So this little benefit represents what to the bottom-line?


The above non-reflective reply is likely to get a poor response. If you wish to make a point it could usefully be posed as a question as that may allow them to arrive at your interpretation without feeling judged by you.

Tom:  I think my report was valuable

Angus:  Okay, I’m interested in that. In what ways is your report valuable?


If they hedge, just summarize anything useful that they said (in answer to the question) and repeat the question in this way:

Angus:  Thanks Tom, I hear that Phil appreciated getting the report on time, good, but in what other ways is your report valuable?

This is the method of broken-record technique[3]. It is politely very forceful since it leaves no escape route. If you change the language you end up with a debate out semantics of that language. Still with the same phrasing that they were stuck with and they will process some more in order to get some fresh perspective. To do that they may need some silent processing space. Hold that silence and wait for the result.

Extreme Value-judgments about Others

As with expletives, these may be best referred to using the word ‘that’. It is helpful for people to have somewhere to vent their anger. Ideally you will be comfortable about being used for that. If so, you then have the chance of helping then reinterpret their experience more positively. If that is not within your current skills, it may again be appropriate to create a natural break.

A helpful aim, once the emotions have subsided is to ask questions that help them get greater perspective and come to a more useful and positive state from which to take useful actions (to improve the quality of their relating).

  • Tom, If they had another motive, what might that other motive be?
  • Tom, why do you think this matter is so important to them?

These questions invite new perspectives and if a person is frustrated and stuck, new perspectives will develop choices and potential actions for changing the situation.


[2] Semantics is the study of the meaning of language as it is affected by interpretation and symbolic and metaphoric experiences .

[3] The Broken Record Technique prevents the artful thinker from dodging the question or statement. It is important not to use it aggressively since we want them to think, pause and self-realize. If you are aggressive they will not pause.