Coping with ‘killer’ communication

This is a guest post by Stephen C. Rafe.

Have you ever dealt with killers—idea killers, I mean? The kind that damage or destroy the potential creativity and initiative others are willing to put into a project? You know the type.

Some respond in ways that reveal their resistance to change. Some communicate a reluctance to experiment with new ideas. Some react to new ideas with blank stares. And some even identify themselves by their smirks, scowls and dagger-like stares.

Typically, however, idea killers may respond to a new idea with such comments as: “We’ve tried that before and it didn’t work.”  “We’ve always done it that way” (meaning they oppose changing to a new way). Or,  “We’ve never done it that way” (meaning that they want to maintain the status quo).

Over time, such individuals may have “proven” themselves right because they have associated the avoidance of risk with the avoidance of failure. So, to the extent that such an attitude has proven “right,” their attitudes are reinforced. In the interest of avoiding conflict and controversy, other group members may go along with the killers rather than try something new or different.

So, sensing a lack of support, those who come up with creative and innovative ideas often back down. When that happens, their ideas for solving existing problems, preventing potential problems, or moving to higher positive levels, are stopped in their tracks.

At times, though, courageous people do defend their ideas. However, killers may respond with such pronouncements as: “That won’t work.” Or, “We tried that already.” Rarely do they consider what might keep it from working, or how this effort might be different.

When faced with a persistent advocate for change, killers who have not been unable to squelch the novel concept may escalate. Frequently they will resort to labeling. “That’s ridiculous,” they might say—casting judgment on both the idea and its proponent. And when that, too, doesn’t destroy whatever remains of initiative and creativity, they may resort to credentialing themselves either by experience or longevity.

For instance, they might say with a head-shake: “In all my ___ years as a watch-winder for the President, I’ve never heard of anything like this.” And if that, too, doesn’t work, they may resort to threats such as: “Do that and I’m out of here.”

When you’re the victim 

If you’re subjected to people like this, try these proven techniques: 


  • Display confident posture. Stand tall and erect. Use positive eye contact. Neither shy away from killers nor stare at them.
  • Monitor your voice tones. A calm, well-modulated voice is best.
  • Breathe regularly and deeply. Fullness of breath relaxes the mind and conveys control.


  • Make sure you do your homework. Killers almost always do theirs. Make sure they can’t defeat you with facts.
  • Find an area of the topic in which you can express understanding or agreement. Examples: “I understand that you tried this and it didn’t work.” “I agree that it’s important for this project to succeed.” Then go on to ask them to relate their previous experience. “Tell me what happened when you tried this before.” Also, find out what it is, specifically, that they don’t like about the proposal or idea. “It would be helpful to know what it is that concerns you in particular about this concept.”
  • Avoid using the word “Why” when you ask questions. For example, “Why do you want to change the process?” tends to put people on the defensive, cause them to feel challenged, or conclude that you expect them to justify themselves. Instead, you might ask: “How would changing the process help us _____?” Or, “What is it about the present process you feel needs changing?” Keep in mind that killers often think in global terms and in black-and-white. Help them break through their all-or-nothing thought patterns to start considering possibilities, alternatives and compromises.


If you are unable to help the killer move away from his or her locked-in patterns, you still have choices. Any problem-solving situation has three components:

  1. The project itself.
  1. The people involved.
  1. The resources (time and money) factor.

Consider which one is your highest priority and concern yourself with the impact your decision will have on all three. Thank the killer for his or her input and the opportunity to consider the matter from their perspective. Then, decide—and act.

About the author: Stephen C. Rafe is an author, speaker, educator, coach-counselor and researcher in the field of behavior-based communication (writing, presenting, interviewing, and non-verbal). He is considered to be an authority in two fields: human communication and canine communication. You can find his books on Visit his website at

© 1998, 2002, 2011, Stephen C. Rafe. All Rights Reserved. 


One response to “Coping with ‘killer’ communication

  1. Reblogged this on Consistently great's Weblog and commented:
    Communication problem-personalities

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