In fourth grade, a fellow classmate told me I was ugly. At the age of nine I had no way of understanding jealousy, rivalries, or peer pressure. I just took what she told me as the truth.

I lived with that ‘truth’ until the age of 27 when three wonderful friends worked with me to eliminate that thinking.

Before I began doing my listening and communication work, when someone used the word “ugly,” my mind chatter would go through a 30-seconds of “Don’t they know “ugly” is on the inside not the outside” or “Gosh, use the words ‘homely’ or ‘plain.’ Don’t use ‘ugly.’”

Once I realized that “ugly” was one of the negative words that was stopping my listening, I worked on minimizing the amount of time I was obsessing on the word, and getting back to the conversation. Today, I am now able to push aside this mind-chatter within a second or two.

Why am I telling this story? We all have an incident when a particular word or phrase became toxic for us. Unfortunately, the reasons for the toxicity fade into the background of our personal history, and we never do the work need to release that word’s hold on us. As a result, when that word is innocently used by someone, we drift into mind chatter, stop listening, and essentially become the age we were when that word or phrase became toxic. Becoming age nine, 14, or even 21 at work, may not be so good for your career path. Becoming the age of your teenage kids at home may not be good for your marriage. Let’s see what you can do to increase your awareness of these words.

The best way to have words, situations, or perceptions no longer block our listening is to identify what our emotional triggers are and to understand why they evoke these emotions in us. Here is a general, overall view of the three types of emotional barrier that can confront us.

Types of Barriers

  1. Situational triggers – They consist of difficult episodes in our life that have become unforgettable. This can be anything from breaking a violin string during a grade school performance, to missing the winning basket in a varsity basketball game, to losing a job.
  2. Forbidden topics – They consist of matters we will not talk about. There is nothing wrong with having topics forbidden as long as we know why. Being a responsible listener also means being responsible for our emotional needs. If a topic is out of bounds for us, we can make our apologies and leave the conversation. We do not have to sit still and take it.
  3. Negative – Positive Words –They consist of specific words coming from our child, teen, and adult experiences that trigger a response in us. We hear these words in face-to-face conversation, as well as on radio and television, considered “acceptable.” No matter where we hear them, they can stop our listening. Creating a list of them will heighten our awareness of them so we can push them aside momentarily. Nonetheless, there can be situations when a conversation turns “unacceptable” because of the number of negative words being used by the speaker. In this instance, we cannot push the words aside momentarily. We must consider removing ourselves from the conversation in order to take care of our own emotional needs.

It is time to bring these words or phrases into the light in a way that will help you begin the work of loosening their hold on you. While you complete the following exercise, you may have some epiphanies that will surprise you; and emotions may rise to the surface when you figure out the When and How portion. This is normal, and it gives you an indication of why the word incites such a reaction from you in conversation.

Exercise Instructions

Using three columns:

(1)  Word/Topic/Situation

Write down the ten most problematic words, phrases, situations or topics that create a negative emotion in you that is deep enough to make you stop listening. You may have to do this over a number of days, as most of them may not come to mind quickly.

(2)  When and How

Once the word, phrase, situation or topic is identified, write down when and how each word, phrase, topic or situation became so emotionally loaded.

(3)  Age at First Occurrence

In the last column, identify the age when this word, topic, or situation became an issue.


(1) Word – ugly

(2) When and How – I was called this in 4th grade, never said anything to my parents about it and internalized it

(3) Age – 10


(1) Word – unacceptable

(2) Why – the VP of a company that I was a District Manager for said this continuously and with venom which wasn’t called for

(3)  Age – 46

Now that you have done this exercise, and you are extremely aware of these words, you can begin to work on lessening the amount of time your reaction to them takes you off the ‘listening track.’ It is also critical that you share the results with those around you as and how you see fit. Doing so will improve the quality of communication in your personal and professional life.