We all know that words have meaning. The difficulty is that, along with their everyday meaning, they also have emotional meaning. This extra emotional meaning is often used, consciously or unconsciously, especially when we are arguing. Here are seven things that we should either not say or that we should say carefully to communicate more effectively.
‘You’ is a tricky word. When it is used softly it can convey connection and elevate a person. It is especially powerful when we use it in conjunction with a person’s name to establish a direct, personal connection. For example, “Tia, when you help others in the office it really helps. Thanks.”
‘You’ is a directional word. So, it can be used with other words to shift or sharpen the focus on the person we are talking to. The problem is that ‘you’ is also an identity word. When we say ‘you’, we are implying ‘you are’. We can imply that a person is either good or bad. If someone were to say to us, “You never listen,” we would likely interpret it as meaning “You don’t pay attention because you don’t care” or “You are not a caring person.”
When used harshly or in an accusatory fashion, ‘you’ can convey an attack on the person we are talking to. For example, imagine this sentence spoken with an emphasis on the word ‘you’. “You always act like that when we go out!” The natural response is for the person to become defensive or to counterattack.
‘But’ is a deletion word. It tells the listener that everything before it is not important and can be disregarded. For example, “Thanks for trying, but you were really late and everyone noticed.” It is easy to see that this sentence is about being late and not about being thankful.
When arguing, we have a natural tendency to focus on ourselves and what we want to say next rather than fully listening to the person that we are talking to. When we get a chance to talk, we sometimes use the phrase, “Yes, but.” We use this phrase as a bridge. We are offering a shallow acknowledgement that we are listening but we really want to get to our side of argument as quickly as we can.
In comedy improvisation, or improv, the actors have general rules they follow to make sure the skit moves forward. One of the rules in improv is to say “Yes and” rather than “Yes, but.” By replacing the deletion word (but) with an additive word (and), we are taking out the signal that we have strong differences and are replacing it with a signal that there is more to the story or to the conversation.
Always and Never
We recognize that ‘always’ and ‘never’ are generalizations. The problem is that they are usually not accurate. Few things always or never occur. We often use ‘always’ and ‘never’ as emotionally charged frustration words. For example, we might say, “You never help!” We probably know that we do get help sometimes, but we are frustrated about it in some way and want to release our emotions.
Unfortunately, when used with the word ‘you’, ‘always’ and ‘never’ convey an attack on identity. For example, “You always wait to the last minute to pay the bills!” This is just a shaded way of saying a person is lazy or not thoughtful.
Curse words are intensifiers. They are used to convey strong emotions and emphasize what we are saying. The same is true for raising one’s voice. One of the problems with curse words is that we sometimes have incorporated them into our conversational style. Once there, it can be hard to avoid using them. But once an argument begins, curse words lose their casual tone and become separators. They polarize emotions and increase emotional distance.
Curse words are high energy words. When we use them, people may react to the raw emotional energy we are projecting rather than listen to what we are saying. Curse words are particularly inappropriate in work and office environments. If someone were to file a complaint, you may face the embarrassment of hearing your own words played back to you.
‘Should’ is another tricky word. We can use it to create a sense of common purpose or action. For example, we might say, “We should really get together and talk, maybe over lunch today. I’m pretty sure we are just misunderstanding each other.”
But, especially in arguments, we often use ‘should’ to issue mandates to others in a condescending manner. It can be accompanied by an inference that the person we are talking to is inferior, incompetent, or willfully negligent. For example, “You should start acting like an adult!” The implication is, of course, that person is acting like a child.
Similar to when we use the word ‘you’ in an accusatory fashion, emotional add-ons such as ‘you should’ attack the character and identity of the person we are talking to. Even when not an attack, telling a person what they should do or should not do is usually interpreted as unwanted advice.
Don’t play the tone game
I know this is not a word, but I want to include it anyway. We use tone to emphasize what we are saying and to convey pleasure and displeasure with someone. Let’s compare these two sentences. “You can do it tomorrow.” “You can do it tomorrow!” The first sentence would likely be interpreted as deferred permission. The second sentence would likely be interpreted as a demand to stop doing something now combined with rising displeasure.
The problem is this, sometimes we say things with an emotional emphasis and then we deny it later. Let’s suppose we said “You can do it tomorrow!” as part of an emotional conversation that became an argument. We might try to backtrack later by saying, “All I said is that you can do it tomorrow.” This is usually a lie. We may have used those words, but our message included much more meaning and we know it. People react as strongly to our emotional intensity as they do to our words, perhaps even more strongly. We can’t arbitrarily retrieve or erase our emotional content later.
Interested in more insights? For my books and blog, see https://www.jamesmcginley.com.
This article was originally published at https://www.jamesmcginley.com/post/7-words-to-stop-using-to-communicate-more-effectively.
James McGinley, PhD is a professor, author, certified life coach, and licensed counselor. He is interested in cross-cultural and applied psychology, whether at work, as a part of a team, in our personal lives and in our relationships with others, or when we face adversity in life — whether from stress, addiction, or exposure to crisis.