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It’s time we stop using violent words and phrases at work

Common workplace idioms are full of violent imagery. Just think about the last time you “dodged a bullet” or “rolled with the punches.”

It’s time we stop using violent words and phrases at work
[Source photo: Malte Mueller/Getty Images]

Most of us are opposed to violence. We deplore the shootings that are an all-too-common aspect of the daily news. But what we may not realize is how the culture of violence has become part of the language we use—especially in the workplace.

Last week, I posted a photo of my son on Instagram. He was performing a comedy routine at Second City and my first caption was “He killed it!” But something led me to change this.

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to this sort of rhetoric, which makes up so many of our common workplace expressions, and I think it’s time we eliminate language that undercuts the values we believe in. Let’s stop using expressions that conjure up aggression and physical violence.

Here are five ways to do just that:


Too often our words refer to weapons. Eliminate them, and use instead phrases that are clearer and less warlike.

A manager might say “I’m going to have to pull the trigger on this project.” Or a colleague might be called a “straightshooter.” Or someone might say “shoot me an email.”

Why introduce this warrior language? In an environment where people need greater compassion and empathy, “pulling the trigger” should be discarded. Good alternatives exist, for example, “move forward with” or “launch.”

“Straightshooter” should be replaced with more appreciative language like “he’s honest” or “she knows her own mind.” For “I’m going to take a shot in the dark,” substitute, “My best guess is” or “while we don’t have the full story here, I believe . . .” These alternatives are more precise than the gunslinging jargon that’s become increasingly common.


References to ammunition have also become part of our regular discourse. We might hear a colleague say, “You dodged a bullet.” It’s better to be more precise and less warlike. You might state, “Fortunately, we worked our way through that problem,” or, “the outcome was much better than anyone anticipated.”

Anyone who has listened to a PowerPoint presentation has likely heard the word “bullet” from the presenter. “This first bullet shows,” or “take a look at the second bulletpoint.”

Have you ever thought of that word as a poor replacement for words like “my first point,” or “this third point”? The use of “bullets” hides the fact that you aren’t being clear. Is a bullet referencing a topic or an argument? Or a mix of the two? Often speakers don’t even know.

The ambiguity that comes with the use of violent metaphors does not work on any level. These bullet points are both linguistically violent and unclear.


Some words and phrases conjure up physical aggression. They might be used to describe something that’s cool or impressive, as in, “she’s a kickass manager.”

The language of physical aggression also appears when one colleague tells another to “roll with the punches” or suggests that a group in a meeting “kick around some ideas.”

These expressions suggest an environment where physical violence is represented in the words people use. The expressions also lack clarity: What does it actually mean to “kick around” various points of view? Avoid those turn of phrases.


Another way we create a more challenging environment for ourselves is to use negative words when we mean something positive.

We hear the word “bad” being used to mean good. For example, “that’s baaaaad” can be used to praise a colleague’s accomplishment or a promotion. And saying something is “not bad” is another way of saying it’s good.

Similarly, “killed it” is a negative that is often used as a positive, as in “she killed the presentation,” or “I killed the job interview.” Negatives have stepped in to replace positives. And in so doing, they have made our lives seem more fraught with pain and destruction.


Often references to animals involves similar violence. Avoid those expressions.

Someone might say “I killed two birds with one stone,” having gotten both a raise and a new role, all because she did great work on a project. Or someone in the office proposing a project for the third time might be accused of “beating a dead horse.” Or when facing a challenge, someone might say, “I took the bull by the horns.” A boss who hears from a persistent employee might say “stop badgering me.”

These metaphors cry out for a kinder, gentler approach to the natural world and to human interactions that spawn these phrases. In most instances there’s a simple substitution, and ridding your language of violence is an important step toward making the world a better place.

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Judith Humphrey is founder of The Humphrey Group, a premier leadership communications firm headquartered in Toronto. She is a regular columnist for Fast Company and is the author of three books: Impromptu: Leading in the Moment (2018), Speaking as a Leader: How to Lead Every Time You Speak (2012), and Taking the Stage: How Women Can Speak Up, Stand Out, and Succeed (2014). More

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