“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.”
Mmmmm, not quite.
While that’s a nice thought (and makes you sound tough on the playground) words are far more powerful that we like to think. They are often our primary tool for communication and, like any tool, can be used to help or harm.
I’m not going to take the time to discuss the need for being kind with your words here in this post—that should be a given. What I want to focus on today is how certain words or phrases, used even with the best of intentions, can still cause negative reactions or compromise your intended message.
Language Tweaks for Stronger Communication
1. Watch Out for “Buts”
When used to connect two phrases in a sentence, “but” effectively dismisses the first phrase altogether. And as I mentioned in my earlier post on the topic, it can instantly undo all your hard work when you’re trying to give praise, show understanding, or validate the other person.
For example, imagine you get a haircut and a friend of yours walks up to you and says:
“I really like what you’ve done to your hair, but . . .”
What is she going to say next? You don’t know for sure, but it will probably be something negative. She “likes it but . . .” At this point, you’ve likely forgotten the compliment and are fixated on what will come next.
Now imagine she says:
“I really like what you’ve done with your hair, and . . .”
Now what? What’s coming next? You still don’t know, but you do know that she likes your new ‘do. She could say just about anything she wants, and it wouldn’t detract from the fact that she “really likes what you’ve done with your hair.”
She could even say, “. . . and I liked it better the way you had it before.” That’s probably not what you wanted to hear, but it’s still far easier to take. You’re likely to think to yourself, “Even though she liked my hair better the other way, I’m glad she likes it this way too.”
When we say, “I get that you’re frustrated but I don’t think he meant to hurt you,” we diminish the impact of the first half of the sentence—the validating part—and all the other person hears is “you shouldn’t be frustrated; he didn’t mean to hurt you.” When we say “You did a great job on this but it still needs a few tweaks,” all they hear is “you didn’t quite get it right; it still needs a few tweaks.”
Make an effort to replace “but” with “and” and you’ll be amazed at how it frees you up to speak candidly while maintaining trust and safety in the conversation.
2. Lead with “I” Instead of “You”
A common mistake people make during tense conversations is launching in with direct “you” statements such as:
“This is your fault.”
“You don’t work as hard as the others.”
When you’re in a confrontational discussion, “you” statements can feel aggressive and abrasive. To avoid that, lead instead with “I” (or a form of “I”):
“I feel like this may actually be your fault.”
“It feels like you don’t work as hard as the others.”
Leading with “I” emphasizes the fact that you’re sharing your perspective and prevents the comment from feeling like an accusation. If you say to your spouse, “You were insensitive yesterday,” you’re probably going to get into an argument. What is or isn’t insensitive, after all, can be up for debate.
But if you instead say, “I felt like you were insensitive yesterday” or, even better, “I felt embarrassed when you pointed out my mistake to everyone yesterday,” it keeps the focus on you. You are sharing how your spouse’s comment affected you, rather than accusing him of being a mean person.
3. Avoid Absolutes
Absolutes are terms such as “always,” “never,” “constantly,” etc. If your conversation includes an observation of a habit or tendency, it can be tempting to say “you always do this” or “you never do that!”
Aside from the fact that each of these statements leads with “you” instead of “I,” they are abrasive because they are absolute. While it may be true that the other person has a hard time listening to others, it’s highly unlikely that they never do. Surely they listen when the doctor reads them their lab results or when their friend is suggesting movies to see. Claiming that someone “always” does something is equally false.
This type of observation can be softened by leading with “I” as discussed above, or by replacing the absolute term with a non-absolute. The phrase “you always do this” can become “you do this often.” The statement “you never clean up after yourself” can become “you rarely clean up after yourself.” Notice again how these simple changes immediately soften the harsh edges of the feedback.
Got it? Try it.
Pick one or more of the above tips and focus on implementing them during your conversations today. Again—simple adjustments can make a significant impact.
What other communication tips have proven helpful in your life?