Choose the Right Words and Change your Life

As wordsmiths, we have the power to heal or hurt. As coaches or parents, we ought to know when to simply walk away and breathe deeply. I had a post lined up for today, but a silly marital argument with my husband yesterday left me drained and then determined to make the most of the rest of my weekend with the family. The following piece isn’t seasonal – I wrote it last January – but the concept is timeless.

Please read on if you’d like to learn how to

  • Radically improve your life and marriage
  • Hurt your loved ones less
  • End arguments sooner
  • Build better relationships
  • Get on better with the teenagers and children in your life

War of the Words

If you’ve never argued with your spouse, kids, partner or family members, then I don’t know whether to write to you for advice, shout “…pants on fire!” or campaign to get you acknowledged by the religion of your choice! Most of us have hurt others with our words at some time, and even though we may be trained coaches and linguists, I’m convinced that most of us still don’t fully comprehend the power of the words we use to shape – or destroy – our lives.

I had a foul exchange with my husband the other evening, but even while I was in mid-rant, our consistent language patterns kept standing out in sharp relief, as if I was watching a soap opera. I drive him wild  by constantly analysing, mid-argument, the words and intonation he’s been using. He sees it as an annoying diversionary tactic and proof that I’m not really interested in what he’s saying. I naively think it might help us see how we’re snowballing into hell. We cover lots of unpleasant ground in our arguments, from raising our voices and talking over each other to intensifying the language we use.

My husband’s most hurtful argumentative language pattern is to exaggerate his adverbs of frequency and the intensity of the words he uses. “You’re always attacking me for…” “You find fault with everything I …” “Everyone hates it when you…”

Most of us crank up our adverbs of frequency to some extent but I’ve started to notice my daughter doing the same thing, and that really worries me. I’ve started gently asking her if she knows it to be true when she begins a complaint with “She never….” or “You’re always…..”. I’ve also tried to discourage her from answering everything with “OK.” So many words available to her in her rich vocabulary, to describe her days, her experiences, her feelings yet how much teenage indifference and misery can be expressed in those two syllables! I’ve also tried drawing her attention to how often she peppers her speech with sarcastic ‘actually’s.

And what kind of messages do we send our brains when we dress the relatively undramatic events of our daily lives in the most colourful, intense language we can, convincing ourselves that we’re doing it simply to be more expressive? Did he do something without telling you that mildly disappointed you or did he ’stab you in the back’? Did she say something that peeved you a bit and made you vaguely sad or did you ‘take great offence’ at the way she ‘attacked’ you? Are you ’shattered’, ‘terrified’ and ‘heartbroken’ or simply very tired, a bit worried and feeling hurt and sad?

How often do we torture ourselves with ’should’s when a ‘could’, or an honest, authentic ‘want’ could turn our lives around?

How often does a sloppily worded email cause unintentional offence?

Another area of language that can truly change lives is first to notice, then change how often we cancel out the best of intentions with a ‘but’.

“I love you but …” “I’m sorry but ….” “I’m good at _ing, but I’m useless at….” Try, just for a week, to listen out for the phrases we tag on after a ‘but’ – then leave out part two! Let’s try loving and apologising unconditionally, or revelling in our strengths for a micro second before we cancel them out with a ‘but’!

I created this piece in my head as I stood at the kitchen window, watching the falling snow bend our trees in the eerie orange glow of a street light in the middle of the night. I’d gone to bed mid-argument, couldn’t sleep, my husband  came to bed, I got up, so I’d decided to go and make some camomile tea. I stood at the window, mesmerised by the swirling orange snowflakes and wondering how something as delicate as a snowflake had the power to bend and break the branches of trees. As I stood watching, I saw one supple branch rebel under the weight of the thousands of snowflakes heaped upon it,  catapulting its burden with surprising defensive venom. I went outside in my bare feet and dressing gown and gently swept the snow off the remaining trees with a broom, knowing it was too late to take back the thousands of tiny thoughtless comments I heap on my husband over the days, weeks and months until he feels he has to lash back at me about my lack of appreciation and my seeming obsession with perfecting details. I hoped I could at least save some of our branches.

The morning after our argument – we never usually go to sleep angry – my husband apologised graciously and we narrowly avoided having a fight about who was most sorry!

I’d like to leave you with a great tip for apologising.

We’ve taught the kids to do it, and although it’s really hard, it can cancel out huffs and resentments with the positive power of language and empathy. We call it the three part apology.

First, we say sorry for what it is we think we’ve done. Then we try to empathise with how the other person might be feeling; if we get these first two  parts wrong, it’s still useful because the other person has the perfect chance to explain kindly and simply what was going on from their point of view! The third part is to ask if there’s anything we can do to fix things. So, an example might be: “I’m sorry I criticised you for buying things at the supermarket that I didn’t want. It must be really frustrating for you that I didn’t empathise with how tired you were and that I mentioned the things you got wrong without praising you for everything you got right. How can I fix it?

And by the way, bare feet in the snow? PAINFUL!!!

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Please try some of these and let me know how you get on.

What are your most hurtful – or self sabotaging  – linguistic habits?  Which patterns do your arguments consistently follow?

13 thoughts on “Choose the Right Words and Change your Life

  1. If you’ve never argued with your kids I don’t know whether to shout, “pants on fire…” Big grins, Janice. That was awesome.

    The right words make all the difference. Understanding is everything and it is only us who can make it happen. I am very guilty these days of firing off emails, tweets, etc. without taking the time to read them over for a second time. It chills me to think of how much I might have left open for misinterpretation.

    Sean Platt´s last blog post..Deeper Roots For Longer Branches: Writer Dad 2.0

  2. You’re a kind person and an instinctively careful writer, Sean. I can’t imagine folk ever misinterpreting your emails and coming away hurt. Tweets are something else entirely. I don’t know much about the whole world of Twitter , but that’s just one of the things that scares me; so much scope for unintentional pain. You hit the nail on the head about emails when you said “how much I might have left open for misinterpretation”. That’s the problem with writing rather than speech – no intonation and body language to help. I think that’s why I’m so annoyingly liberal with my punctuation and italics. I have what’s probably an anxiety driven desire for my ‘voice ‘ – my intonation, breathing, volume and pitch – to be reproduced accurately so that there’s less chance of the meaning being lost.

    On the plus side, I love how written poetry gives us a chance to be deliberately ambiguous and to manipulate what we show the reader and the pace we do it at.

  3. This is good soup for the soul. Our basic house rules as parents:
    1. If a disagreement is lurking, we table the discussion for after the children are in in bed.
    2. If the conversation is unable to tame itself, one of us will take the lead to say, “I feel we should table this for a later discussion and we have worked hard in 12 years to get rid to of starting a sentence with You______
    3. If the thoughts are so heated, we retreat and write our feelings down so the thoughts are not forgotten. Usually with a cooler mind, the sentiments are muted, but sometimes it gives us perspective to say what we mean rather than attack due to pent up frustration. I can be like a pressure cooker. Sean is more let’s discuss, take care of the issue and move forward. When the children came along we found a healthy middle ground, but it is constant work like maintaining a garden.
    4. We talk about tone a lot in our family. It is probably the number one behavioral piece we discuss to nausea. However, the watchful eyes of our children are internalizing more than we can imagine and that sense of mindfulness speaks louder in are actions than our words.
    5. Acceptance. We are human and not perfect. We make mistakes, feel agitated, drop the ball, but today is a new day and we learn from our experiences and make this moment better than the previous. We feel most proud of modeling this attribute for our children. The hard work pays off when you hear them disagreeing, back pedaling with some parental coaching and finishing the conversation with manners and still articulating the issues that created frustration.
    This post is validating that we are indeed human. Thank you.

    Cindy´s last blog post..Being Honest Prevents Roadblocks

  4. Thank you for sharing this awesome ‘recipe’ with us, Cindy. I hope you’ll turn it into a post for your blog, too. I’d like to read more. So much wisdom we could all put into practice and improve our lives. I bet your classes were an inspiration to other teachers and parents as well as pupils. Like you say, kids need to see the important stuff modelled. They have great ‘integrity-ometers’.

    I could really do with practising your first three as there are lots of ‘horrormoans’ flying around our home at the moment 🙁 and I’m often not quick enough to stop myself swinging from serene to wounded .

    I especially resonated with what you said about tone. I wish we had £10 for every time we have to say to the kids “It wasn’t what you said, it was the way you said it.” We’ve had adults look at us weirdly because sometimes all we need to say to the kids is “Please monitor your tone.” and that’s enough to stop things getting out of hand.

    But your 5 is my favourite. On the days when I feel I’m making a real mess of raising my kids (and there are many) it gives me hope to hear them able to deal with other people’s frustrations, like your two seem to be doing at such a young age. My daughter once turned round to a friend and said “You know, sometimes it’s better to be kind than right.” I nearly cried with pride.

    I really appreciate you taking the time to share this. I know every minute of the day is precious when the kids are young and at home a lot.

  5. Hi Janice,

    This post brought a smile to my face. Isn’t marriage wonderful? Whenever my husband and I have an argument, I am always amazed that he does not know what I mean. My husband, who is not a lawyer, becomes a lawyer when we disagree. Each word is chosen precisely and full meaning. As for me, who is the lawyer, I just say what I feel and sometimes the words that I choose are not as precise and we end up arguing about the precision of the word rather than the topic that started the fight. Eventually this leads to laughter because it becomes funny when you are arguing about what certain words mean.

    BTW, great advice regarding the three part apology. We do something similar. It does make a difference when feelings are acknowledged…even if you do not know how to properly define them! 😉

    Nadia – Happy Lotus´s last blog post..My Adventures with Chakras

    • Marriage is usually wonderful …and often weird! I never speak to anyone as aggressively as I do with my husband and he’s a saint most of the time. Sometimes I think couples do it when they’re in danger of becoming so close that their personalities start merging. One of the things we do in a silly loop is the “You said________.” “No, I didn’t!” “Yes, you did!!” If only one of the kids would just come in and leave a tape recorder or send us to separate rooms on a time out! A court recorder typing away in the corner might be good, too!

  6. “What are your most hurtful – or self sabotaging – linguistic habits? Which patterns do your arguments consistently follow?”

    I’ve tried hard over a period of years to develop non-hurtful word habits when disagreeing with someone. I agree fully when you say words like “always,” and “never” seldom apply. When my children were young, please and thank you were the norm. Shhh was substituted for “shut-up.”

    “I hate you,” was replaced with something like “I hate that you did that.”

    Along with respectful language, a big accomplishment for me was to lower my voice…no harsh shouting.

    Karen Chaffee´s last blog post..Joan Rivers — When Not To Defend Your Child

  7. Thanks, Karen – these are gems!

    I hate you,” was replaced with something like “I hate that you did that.”

    This one’s so simple yet so powerful, isn’t it? My husband and I tried hard with our kids never to label them, only their behaviour. The positive backwash was that we started to notice how often we labelled each other and people in general. When you make a determined effort just to name the behaviour instead of defining a person by a label, it diffuses so much hostility.

    Lowering volume and being respectful, even under pressure, are another two of the ‘seems too good to be true’ solutions that can have miraculous results.

    We’ve tried never to use hurtful names and language in our house, but the cruellest and most accurate thing one of my kids ever said to me when I lashed out with a loud and hurtful label one day was a quiet “You’re a hypocrite.”

  8. You writing is mesmerizing! I ran across your blog last night, I wanted to wait to leave a comment because I could hardly keep my eyes open, your story stuck with me and I was still thinking about when I woke up this morning!
    I too have a had my nights of introspection with my cup of tea after a disagreement with my husband, a few times I have felt literally sick because our disagreement lingered after bed time. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I would rather be happy than ‘right’, and words can hurt. I never stay mad and quickly apologize the next day- but I know deep down that the damage has been done.
    Thank you for the wonderful reminder of the power of our words.
    I love it all! Especially your tips for apologizing, I am going to use this for my family as well. Thank you so much for your wonderful writings!

    Angie´s last blog post..Are you sabotaging your children’s future?

  9. You’re very welcome, Angie – and thanks for visiting! (OK, so I have no shame…thanks for the “mesmerizing”, too. It made my day!)

    I love all comments on this blog – every single one is uplifting, inspiring or reinforces my faith in the power of connection – but more than that, they’ve all made me feel like I’m not alone on my journey.

    I resonated with what you said about fearing the damage that’s been done, even after the apologies have been made. I carry that memory of the catapulting branches with me, to remind me to brush the snow off before it’s really too late. You’re aware of the dangers, so I reckon you’ll be fine. Most people don’t understand the extent of the damage their words cause until it’s too late.

  10. Hi, Janice. I found you through Nadia’s site and am so happy I did. Thank you for sharing this post about the power of our words. One of my most self-sabotaging linguistic tactics used to be turning most requests/expectations into a “should,” “must,” or “have to.” When my therapist (bless her) helped me realize this several years ago, it really turned my world around. I am so much more careful now with the language I choose, even to say something like, “I am so angry.” I try not to say this but to say, instead, “I feel angry.” What a difference it makes. I even posted on it recently too: Glad to have found you today. I hope to visit again soon.

    Chania Girl´s last blog post..An Open Window

    • Glad you popped over to our wee bistro! One of the things I love about blogging is how nice it is to meet up and chat at different people’s ‘tables’. Nadia and I met after a post I did over at Mary and Leo’s ‘table’ at Write to Done. Spookily, I used to work in Crete, among other places in Greece, and my boy had his head stitched in the hospital in Chania – the town in your nickname!

      I’m so glad you mentioned how changing your language changed your life – as you’ve seen first hand, it really is that powerful, although a lot of folk don’t believe it. Language can shape our thoughts and our thoughts form our lives.

  11. Janice,
    I can’t tell you how I felt when I had a terrible fight with my wife. I was on the brink of a deep depression for a whole two days.
    The problem with me: I give whole lot of importance to the words we speak and hear.
    I hate the words that trigger guilt in the other person: I told you that….., I know it happens….., You’re always like to insult me….., Why did you drop the bottle….
    If you carefully observe these words … they all smack a lack of trust in the other person, a lack of genuine willingness to understand from the other one’s perspective.
    My son was born and my world of words taken an evolution. I try to bring up the big picture of my vision of seeing him as a great human being, comes in. I try to tell each word that explain him what went wrong and connect it to the big picture I have of him.
    I’m sometimes guilty of labelling him – lazy, useless…. and I feel terribly sorry and apologize to him.
    I cry each time he says sorry so many times for little mistakes, or foibles, he commits. That makes me a proud father to him and me bringing him up close to the big picture I had of him. ( I liked what your daughter said… It’s good to be kind than right.
    But, I liked the three step apology of yours. I often don’t dwell on how it hurt him or her.
    But, I understood with my wife…. I can’t change her words overnight, but rather not dig deep into her words. May be some of them have no real meaning to it. :-)))
    I was told by my sister who is illiterate…. just don’t listen those words of your wife when she argues …. go out and sit outside. I value her intelligence and her practical knowledge.
    Cindy too has great tips to have a happy marriage…. and @ Karen.. “I hate you did that” is quite meaningful.
    Thanks for the post, and look forward for more….

    Solomon´s last blog post..Go Crazy …. It helps you LEARN and WIN

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