Having an Axe to Grind

Cinergy Coaching by Cinnie Noble

According to wiseGEEK, “There are two meanings to the phrase ‘an axe to grind’. The first meaning is the traditional American one, which means having an ulterior motive or personal reasons, other than the obvious, for doing something. The British meaning is to hold a grudge or a grievance against someone or something.”

The same source says:

“The term comes from the grinding of axes using a grindstone. Axes were first made of wood and stone, then came to be composed of the best metal available to the person. They are used for splitting wood, felling trees and various other things. They are also a weapon of aggression. Axes are sharpened using a round grindstone that is rotated on an axle using a foot pump.”

The U.S. (Philadelphia) origin is that Charles Miner wrote a cautionary tale about his childhood in which he relates that he was duped into grinding an axe for a man using a grindstone. Once Miner finished the task, the man left without even saying “Thank you” or rewarding Miner for his hard work.

“Naturally, Miner held a grudge of sorts and used the metaphor to warn others of ulterior motives and self-interest. His tale led to him saying in 1812, ‘When I see a merchant over polite to his customers…Thinks I, that man has an axe to grind.’ The hidden motive for the merchant is profit and the metaphor can be taken to mean someone who is nice in order to get what he wants.”

Apparently, other origins of having an axe to grind have been considered but appear to have much the same meaning of having a grievance about someone’s actions – with a need to seek retribution.

This week’s ConflictMastery™ Quest(ions) blog explores this phrase and invites you to consider a person about which you might say you have an axe to grind.

What is the situation?

What did the other person do?

What makes her or his actions egregious?

What motives do you think she or he had?

If there is a chance her or his actions had some positive meaning to them, what might that be?

Of the various definitions of having an axe to grind, which one reflects your experience in relation to the conflict you are discussing here?

What does the axe represent in that scenario?

What do you hope grinding the axe with her or him might achieve?

How does it feel to do so (your answer to the previous question)?

What are you thinking now about the other person that is different than when you began this series of questions?

What other ConflictMastery™ Quest(ions) may you add here?


Cinnie Noble

Cinnie Noble is a certified coach (PCC) and mediator and a former lawyer specializing in conflict management coaching. She is the author of two coaching books: Conflict Management Coaching: The CINERGY™ Model and Conflict Mastery: Questions to Guide You. MORE >

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