“Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.” –Buddha
Last month I addressed the idea of considering the effect of your words on other people. The focus was on how words can produce a negative response, even if unintended. This month I’d like to talk about words you might think will have a positive effect but may not. Also, there’s a list of words that can help improve your communication and good will.
Just as negative words can set up a chain reaction of communication that goes in a downward spiral, so can positive words set up a chain reaction that goes in an upward spiral and improves the quality of the relationship.
See if you can picture yourself in any of the following scenarios. How do you currently express yourself? Can you see any similarities?
What might you do differently to improve your chances of success?
An example of a downward spiral:
Person 1: “Why did you say such a mean thing?”
The recipient (“Person2) can quickly tense up and give a defensive response, such as “I was being mean because you have been ignoring me.” Or, “I wasn’t being mean, I was just being honest.” Or a variety of other replies that now create tension in the person who asked the question (“Person 1”).
If you can imagine this conversation, or perhaps can even recall having one like it, you can see how “Person 1” will likely respond with a defensive statement, (e.g. “I haven’t been ignoring you” or, “You call that honest?”) and any good will starts to deteriorate. It is often difficult to get back on a more positive track when this happens, and can end in anger, resentment, or withdrawal.
We all have our bad days or bad moments, when we say things we wouldn’t say if we were feeling good about ourselves. The challenge is to recognize your bad mood and avoid engaging in conversation with others as a way of releasing those feelings.
One way to process this is to ask yourself, “If I were really feeling good about myself, what would I do or say differently?”
Here’s an example of an upward spiral, using the same subject:
Person 1: “When you said “X”, I felt misunderstood and hurt.”
Person 2: “I’m truly sorry you heard it that way. I wasn’t thinking about how what I said could have a negative effect on you.” And/or, “I realize now I was in a bad mood and was taking it out on you.”
This will more likely result in further dialogue that can repair any hard feelings or damage.
Here are 3 examples of situations that you may think of as positive, but can have potholes:
1. “You did a good job.” There’s nothing really wrong with this statement. However you can build more good will and positive feelings by talking about the process that went into the “good job” instead of just the outcome.
Saying something like, “You really put a lot of effort into this project/event, and it shows.” When you say “good job,” the other person can think “He/she has no idea how much work I put Into this.” They don’t feel the level of appreciation they want or need.
It can also set up a more subtle reaction of “Maybe next time I will get criticized for doing a “bad job, since results are all that matter, and I don’t always know what will please this person.”
2. Another example of words expressed with good intentions but miss the mark: (after the other person describes their effort,) and you are pleased, but instead of using the example above, you say: “Have you thought about including/omitting this part,” or “You could have made it even better by doing this.”
This dilutes the positive effect of your words, and sends the message that what they did wasn’t quite good enough. While you may have some helpful suggestions, save them for later and in a separate conversation. e.g. “I’ve been thinking about your project/idea, and wonder what you think about adding this…“
And, speaking of good intentions: Do you know someone who tries to justify his/her poor behavior by saying he/she had good intentions?
Or even the recipient of poor behavior excusing it by using the same reasoning: “He/she had good intentions.”
In each case, the person is not taking responsibility, and isn’t being honest, which creates a gap in the communication with a negative effect.
In the first instance, the speaker isn’t willing to acknowledge the poor behavior, thereby they don’t learn anything from it.
In the second instance, the recipient is swallowing his/her feelings and creating stress, while nothing is being done to improve the situation. Both examples are the result of denial.
3.The third example of good intentions that can backfire: In an attempt to be caring, supportive, and empathic, a person will respond to someone else’s pain by saying, “I know just how you feel, I had a similar experience,” and then go on to describe their own story. By doing this, the person is shifting the attention to themselves and often neglecting the feelings and needs of the other person.
If any of this sounds familiar, make a note of it and as a reminder, write down how you can handle the conversation differently the next time.
Ways to increase positive responses
• “I appreciate what you said/did. It means a lot to me.” This is preferable to simply saying “thank you,” because it gets a little more specific and often sounds more thoughtful and sincere.
• “One of the things I value about you is…” Take the opportunity to express a quality in the other person that you admire and respect. Do this with one quality at a given time. If you express several qualities at the same time, it will be less effective.
• “Please tell me more about…” Shows a more sincere interest in what the other person Is saying.
• “You bring up some interesting ideas, I really would like to think about this more and continue our discussion when I do.” Again, this validates the other person.
• “You really help bring out my sense of humor.” (or any other quality) Let the other person know their positive impact on you.
• “I’d be willing to…” When there is a disagreement or impasse, focus on what you can and would do instead of what your contrary position is.
“Some things are better left unsaid. Which I generally realize right after I have said them” author unknown
There may be more examples you can come up with. If you are willing to share any of these, please send them to me and I will share them with the other readers of this blog.
Feel free to send this newsletter to anyone you think might be interested.