Poison Oak – Poison Words

Steve Davis | 18 February 2022

I’m currently battling Poison Oak on my right arm. It’s ugly, itchy, and messy. You can put stuff on it to reduce the itching and “dry it out”, and it will still be around for 7-10 days. If you scratch it (and it is incredibly itchy), it leaves scars. What makes Poison Oak so aggravating is how easy it is to get.

Poison Oak is really a vine, not an “oak”. It grows in other trees – often you don’t know it’s there. The plant’s oil is in every leaf, branch and bark – just touching it exposes you. The oil stays on your clothing – even after washing. You can cut the trunk of the plant, but the oil persists – for years. And, once you touch the oil, any other skin you then touch is exposed.

So, I really dislike Poison Oak. But it got me thinking about the mental equivalent of Poison Oak – Poison Words. These are words or phrases, often delivered casually or sarcastically, that leave a lasting impression – most often negatively. Poison Words focus on the person, not the behavior or problem. And frankly, we are often unaware that we are the “Poison Oak plant.”

Here’s an example… “Wow, you wrote this memo full of misspellings and grammatical errors.” What is the “subject” of this sentence… you! However, what needs correcting… the memo! Instead of the person understanding that the memo needs to be fixed, they are left with the belief that they are a poor writer… that they need to be fixed.

Here’s another… “You never pause in your presentations to ask for questions.” Really… never? If the goal is to improve the person’s presentations, saying words like “never” implies an inability to change… again, the person is a failure.

And finally, this surprising one… “You always have a great phone attitude!” Saying someone is “always good” is nearly just as poisonous as saying someone is “never good” (or “always poor”). Unreal expectations are set… and they will come crashing down. “Wait a minute, didn’t you say on my review that I ALWAYS have a good phone voice? Why are you criticizing me now??”

Poison Words are insidious – they get in your head and stay there.


A LONG time ago, the first Management Skills program I attended had, as its first principle, “Focus on the Problem, Issue or Behavior, not the person.” In the above three examples, the focus is on the person – YOU wrote, YOU never, YOU always. The focus should have been on a specific memo, presentation, and phone conversation. And I mean specific – addressing this one instance this time gives you the freedom to address the next one – good or bad – as needed.

Poison Words are insidious – they get in your head and stay there. They are only healed with time, or when new behaviors (or new poisons) take their place. And they leave mental scars.

As managers, you have an obligation to treat the individuals on your team with respect, while keeping the focus on their work. Next time you want to correct a behavior, look out for Poison Words.

– Steve Davis

18 February 2022