What is sharper than a knife? What can hurt more than a punch in the gut? What can sting and hurt longer than a hive a bee stings?
Words. The old phase is right … words cut at you; words hurt. Words can cause emotional pain which can last longer and hurt stronger than physical pain.
We don’t normally intend to hurt others. Yet, there are some nuances that can hurt which we might not realize. Subtle word choices can cause resentment vs building rapport. Can build relationships vs create conflict. Can make people comfortable vs making people defensive.
In his book What Got You Here Won’t get You There, executive coach Marshall Goldsmith devotes two chapters to this topic. One of his best practices focuses on limiting destructive comments – eliminating those needless sarcasms and cutting remarks that we think make us sound sharp and witty. Another is more specific and subtle – don’t start with “no”, “but”, or “however.” These small words can put people on the defensive. Goldsmith believes that the overuse of these qualifiers secretly say to everyone, “I’m right. You’re wrong.”
In his book, Tongue Fu!, Sam Horn shares his thoughts on martial arts for the mind and mouth; words to lose and words to use. Like Goldsmith, Horn suggests subtle word choices that promote positive, constructive conversations. Horn’s goal is to “create light, not heat.” Here are some examples.
- AND instead of BUT – Allows you to connect instead of cancel
- NEXT TIME instead of SHOULD – Coach instead of criticize
- PLEASE instead of YOU HAVE TO – Request instead of order
- CAN instead of CAN’T – Devise instead of deprive
- DO instead of DON’T – Specific what you do want instead of what you don’t want
- SPECIFICS instead of EXTREMES – Specify and request what you do want
While it is a little word here or there, it does make a difference. Learning to respond positively takes practice. Our habits of reacting with the BUT and SHOULD words have been ingrained. Start practicing today. Over time, new habits will emerge.
TAKE-AWAYS: Sometimes it’s not the big changes that make the most impact. It can be the smaller ones. Subtle word choices can create light in an otherwise dark conversation.