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"You Don't Say?" Good!

What You Don't Say Determines The Relationship

We know that "good" talk smooths and builds relationships, whether with family, or friends or in the workplace. Supportive listening and compliments are important in building a good foundation of trust and mutual respect.

Yet there's the other side of the communication coin: What you do NOT say -- the thoughts that occur to you during or after interactions that you "could" verbalize. These thoughts, when verbalized are usually critical, contrary, or even insulting, yet we all have them, particularly when conversing about contentious issues. Or sometimes, it's just that we are grumpy and having bad days.

The Damage of Imperfect Phrases

Imperfect phrases are sentences that damage relationships. The intent may be to be constructive, but it comes out wrong. Or the imperfect phrases can stem from frustration with the other person or oneself.

Some examples:

Here are some examples of imperfect phrases -- the less directly insulting ones, taken from ImPerfect Phrases For Relationships: 101 COMMON Things You Should Never Say To Someone Important To You... And What To Say Instead

  • If you really cared about me, you'd...
  • If you really loved me you'd...
  • Don't take this the wrong way
  • Get off my back
  • And another thing...

Damaged Trust:

Relationships are based on trust that the other person will act in a relatively predictable way and communicate in non-hurtful ways. Even ONE imperfect phrase can shake trust between two people. The shakier the relationship, the more destructive the effect of imperfect phrases.


We react to aggression with aggression. It's likely a natural biological reactions that we (well, some of us) learn to counter-balance, but imperfect phrases are perceived as verbal aggression, even if the intent was not be be hurtful or insulting.

The other person fights back, sometimes consciously, sometimes striking out from fear, anger or hurt feelings. Imperfect phrases cause arguments, and cause arguments to escalate quickly and severely.

So What About MY Feelings?

There's a general belief that people should express their feelings when they experience them, albeit in a constructive, assertive manner, and there's some merit to that.

However, keep in mind that not everything that pops into your head is a true reflection of your feelings or of feelings that are going to endure longer than that quick flash through your skull.

Expressing transitory emotional states can be exceedingly damaging, since there will be many many times during an average day that you think something that should not be expressed, simply because expressing it would be damaging to both parties, and pointless and fruitless.

For example, someone bumps into you at the supermarket. If you are like many people, a number of aggressive thoughts may pop into your head, particularly if you are in a bad mood. "Watch where you are going, you idiot", might be one of them.

That would be an imperfect phrase, because it's destructive, and likely to create mutual aggression.

The "Trick": Self Control and THINK

There's a trick to at least reduce the blurting out of destructive thoughts and comments, and it's simple, yet hugely complex to put into action.

It takes attention, but self-control over what one says can be learned.

Here are some tips:

Slow down your initial response. Your first response to something - the one from your "gut" is usually the aggressive one. If you don't say anything (immediately) you buy time to let that initial reaction fade or pass.

Ask: Is that thought something that will help US (or me)? Often the thoughts we have are not only destructive if expressed to the other person, but they are destructive to the speaker. Realize that it is in YOUR self-interest to put a sock in it.

Learn the more subtle forms of imperfect phrasing: Most of us can recognize the more aggressive, in your face ways of verbal attacks. However, there are imperfect phrases that are much more subtle, and on the surface, may seem fine to use. Those are the dangerous ones, because you may think what you said was perfectly find, but the other person explodes in anger, leaving you shocked and confused.

I've written ImPerfect Phrases For Relationships: 101 COMMON Things You Should Never Say To Someone Important To You... And What To Say Instead which outlines more principles about effective communication, and outlines 101 phrases, most of which we all use quite regularly, that are destructive to trust.

More to the point, the book suggests better more constructive ways to express the same thoughts.



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Bacal & Associates was founded in 1992. Since then Robert has trained thousands of employees to deal with angry, hostile, abusive and potentially violent customers. He has authored over 20 books on various subjects, many published by McGraw-Hill.


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