CHOICE OF WORDS MATTERS
Updated: Feb 6
Years ago, an astute woman told me I was imprecise with my language. At the time, I was taken aback. That wasn’t me. I study language, for heaven’s sake. Well, over time, I’ve come to realize she was right.
The reason I know is because I’m more precise now. The change didn’t come automatically or overnight. It has taken work and attention. Sometimes I must give myself several seconds of “think time” before I open my mouth. Even then my more helpful choice of words sometimes seems to have emerged more out of luck than precision. Other times, I think my chosen words surface simply because I’m more aware of their power, how they can change thinking, as well as manifest helpfulness, authenticity, and caring.
Working at becoming increasingly accurate with my language has become an ongoing process I find well worth the effort. An unanticipated benefit is that my words are becoming less judgemental and confrontational.
The following is a list of 10 words or phrases that help me be more encouraging and positive, while promoting more harmony, connection, and fresh ways of thinking.
WHAT VS. WHY?
As in “What’s the reason you did that?” instead of “Why did you do that?” What is easier to answer, more concrete, and sounds less accusatory.
LET’S TRY AGAIN, LOOK SOME MORE, ALMOST, or LOOK AGAIN.
These words can subtly promote the concept of effort, persistence, and empowerment. They can replace “That’s wrong, I’ll do it,” etc., words that can feel static and possibly encourage learned helplessness.
LET’S THINK ABOUT IT AGAIN. WHAT IF…?
These words could help promote “problem solving” which is key to learning. They can also replace “That’s wrong, it’s number 3,” etc., which can stimulate fixed thinking.
IF YOU DO THAT… THIS COULD HAPPEN…
These words can imply the idea of collaboration instead of ONLY THE ADULT KNOWS as in “You need to do this…I’ll show you.”
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
These words can help children become more their own problem solvers. For example, “What do you think is the reason we can’t leave now?” or maybe “What’s the reason you did that?” For the children who need to know all the parameters of a situation to feel comfortable, turning the question back to them can promote a feeling of competency and awareness that they often already have the answers in their brains.
A special benefit for us is that it can lessen the flood of questions from those children (not 2-4 year olds who are expected to question incessantly).
EXPECTED/UNEXPECTED vs. APPROPRIATE/INAPPROPRIATE
I feel much less judgmental when I say expected and unexpected instead of appropriate and inappropriate.
I first learned the benefits of these words through Michelle Garcia Winner.
The following words have often helped me short circuit long, tedious and often overwrought verbal battles.
“I understand how you feel but I’m not going to change my mind” can avoid continued arguing, over-explaining, ignoring the child, or threats.
“No, that’s not okay with me.” vs. continued arguing or something like “Who do you think you are?”
“I’m not comfortable letting you do…” vs. “If you do that, you WILL hurt yourself,” etc.
I especially like this one. It’s hard to argue against, and I can rarely predict whether a child WILL hurt himself. I also don’t want to say something that could inhibit a child’s natural inclination to explore, trust her own perceptions, and stretch her own limits.
“I’d be happy to speak with you about this, but let’s make a time that we can do it. I can’t talk about it right now.”
These words have had surprising success in situations such as a student arguing about playing a game instead of doing my planned activity or a nephew arguing to stay up at bedtime. In my experience, children rarely persist after I utter these words and not one has ever brought up the issue later. Thank you Rosalind Wiseman.
“You’re just not doing what I want you to do.”
If you count, this is #11, but it is more a thought stimulated by the words “Am I being bad?” or the like that I hear so often from the mouths of children. In those situations, I usually tell them they are not being bad. In my experience, children don’t differentiate between being bad and acting bad. They both mean they are bad.
I’ve even banished the word bad from my office. Then it got really simple. They’re just not doing what I want or need them to do at that moment. When I tell them, I think I see a little shift. They seem to lighten up.
I’m sure you have your own pet words. I’d love to hear them.
For more information, you might want to take a look at Marshall Rosenberg’s book, Living Nonviolent Communication.