To explain why it’s such a bad choice, it helps to examine a separate, one-word term that most people have never even heard of.
Let’s tackle the lesser-known term first. It’s a word about words, actually: “litotes.”
What are litotes? They’re an ironic figure of speech the posits the denial of an opposite, instead of a simply making a straightforward statement.
This will make much more sense by simply providing examples:
- “He isn’t terrible-looking,” instead of, “He’s good-looking.”
- “It wasn’t my finest hour,” instead of, “I behaved or performed badly.”
- “Not too terrible,” in response to a question like, “How are you?” instead of simply saying, “Doing great, thanks!”
Litotes suggest understatement and irony. You can use them to soften a blow or take the edge off a comment that might come across as bragging or belittling.
But sometimes, they can also carry underhanded or even nefarious connotations. And it’s this observation that brings us to our “litotes of the day,” so to speak; the toxic phrase that people with high emotional intelligence know to use in only the most positive and deliberate circumstances.
That phrase is: “It’s not hard.”
Obviously, we are not talking about literal hardness, or else a sort of reassuring, you-can-do-it encouragement to help people achieve their goals.
- How is the mattress in the hotel? “It’s not hard.”
- Do you mind doing this favor for me? “No, it’s not hard.”
- “I know you’re scared about starting a new career, but I believe in you, and once you take the first step, it’s not hard.”
Instead, we’re talking about the most common modern uses for this phrase (unfortunately!), in which it drips with condescension, trolling, and even contempt.
Not surprisingly, you’ll find a lot of examples of its use like this online, in modern social media, and in business. Again, this will make more sense by sharing examples.
- Imagine that someone laments about having gained weight during the pandemic. A person with low emotional intelligence (“PWLEI”) might reply: “It’s not hard. Eat less and exercise more.”)
- Or else, someone struggles with a complex political or social dilemma. A PWLEI might reply: “It’s not hard. All you need to do is [agree 100 percent with their side of the divisive political debate].”
- Or, someone discusses a business or financial challenge. A PWLEI might say: “It’s not hard. Just [and then blithely explain something that is actually really hard to achieve.]”
See what I mean? In each case, you’re (or perhaps I should say, our “PWLEI”) explicitly tells the person that the difficulty they’ve articulated isn’t a difficulty at all. But because they’re using litotes-;”it’s not hard,” as opposed to, “it’s easy”-;they’re also using a rhetorical device barely hides their undercurrent of disbelief.
It’s a bit passive-aggressive, to be honest. And while there are exceptions to this rule, emotionally intelligent people recognize the danger.
Now, I must add that sometimes the condescension and dismissiveness are intentional. In fact, perhaps these are emotionally intelligent people using their insights into language like this for mischievous or even spiteful reasons!
I suppose it’s their right. It’s also one of my biggest moral dilemmas in writing so much about how to improve emotional intelligence: I have to take it on faith that the people I’m offering it to won’t use it for unbecoming purposes.
Anyway, if you’re concerned about emotional intelligence in business and leadership, I think it’s worth thinking about these words. It’s just one phrase in a long line of expressions that it’s worth developing mental muscle memory either to use or avoid.
As I write in my free e-book, 9 Smart Habits of People With Very High Emotional Intelligence (which includes discussion of a number of other phrases to avoid), emotional intelligence is not just about developing empathy or being nice to people.
Those can be nice side-effects, but the main goal is something much more focused: leveraging emotions — yours and other people’s — to improve the odds that you’ll achieve your goals, both in business and in life.
Choose the right words, and you’ll have a much better chance of success.