Buy From Amazon
Prefer the Kindle Version? We've got one. Get it now from the Kindle Store
It’s actually much easier to learn and understand a small number of communication and relationship principles than to memorize hundreds of imperfect phrases to avoid, and hundreds of replacement phrases. Besides, you can’t parrot things you’ve been told to say. You need to understand the why’s, too.
By learning the guiding principles in this chapter, and keeping them in mind, you’ll be able to build better relationships as you go, and THINK about what you say more effectively.
Almost all of the principles will make you say: “Well, YEAH, I knew that”. Most aren’t complicated, and once someone explains the principles, you’ll think you aren’t learning anything new. But you are. The most powerful principles, once told, will almost always cause you to feel like you always knew about it, even if that’s not true.
Pay special attention to this chapter, and do your best to MEMORIZE the principles, word for word. It shouldn’t take you long, but you will find that the better you learn them NOW, the better your relationships will become as you get more and more adept at applying them in real life.
It’s The Presuppositions That Hurt
Presuppositions? That’s a ten dollar word, but when it comes to communication, it’s THE most important thing to understand. It’s also the hardest to explain, and get your head around. Not THAT difficult, but just more difficult than most communication principles.
If we had to spell out every single detail to get our point across, we’d never finish speaking. Language is shorthand, and presuppositions allow us to communicate without spending hours giving enough details so the other person understands.
Let’s look at an example.
When did you stop stealing?
The actual words on the page only ask “you” to tell us at what point you gave up stealing. If not for presuppositions, this might be a positive kind of question.
The problem, though is what isn’t said, but is still conveyed.
Any phrase only makes sense (has some meaning) within its context, and based on understanding what ELSE must be true for the phrase to make sense.
In our example, the question PRESUPPOSES that “you” were once a thief. It presupposes that you are no longer stealing. It also presupposes that there was some specific time when you decided to stop.
The question doesn’t flat out say those things — it’s shorthand for those things. “You” immediately “get” the presuppositions, or the hidden messages that underlie the question.
But that’s the problem. Take a look at this dialogue:
Tom: George, when did you stop stealing?
George: What the hell are you talking about — I’ve never stolen anything in my life.
Tom: I wasn’t saying you were a thief, relax.
George: ….splutters angrily
We’d assume that Tom knew exactly what he was saying “beneath” his words, because this example is so obvious, but in many cases, the person speaking is NOT aware of the hidden meanings, or what is presupposed in even simple sentences.
George reacts not to the actual words of the question, but the hidden accusation that he has stolen in the past. Then Tom, in a very passive-aggressive way, denies it was his intent to accuse George of thievery.
The actual words used ARE important, but the presuppositions are often even more important.
Let’s look at one more example.
Make sure you do it right this time!
Look at the words literally. If you don’t think much about it, you might conclude that this is a strongly worded request that the person do something correctly. It’s really not all that offensive, until you look at the presuppositions — what is being said between the lines.
If you and I were talking, and I had confidence in you, why would I say such a thing? If I didn’t feel you screwed up a lot, why would I say such a thing?
Right. I wouldn’t. What I’m really saying is:
- You usually screw things up.
- I don’t have confidence in you to do things correctly.
- There actually IS a RIGHT way to do whatever it is you are going to do.
- Those are the presuppositions that allow our sentence to “make sense”.
It doesn’t matter if I actually believe those things. It doesn’t matter if I’m intending to say those things. By phrasing the sentence the way I did, I am sending those hidden messages.
You WILL hear the hidden messages, and you WILL react as if I’ve told you I think you are a screw-up, that I think you fail at things, and that I have no confidence in you.
Not a conversation that can have any positive effect on any relationship, and it’s all from the presuppositions.
The very first thing for you to do is start paying attention to the presuppositions that are attached to almost everything you say. Are they positive or negative? Would they insult, hurt or demean the average, reasonable person? Do you really want to say what’s in those hidden “lines”?
If you learn ONLY to do that, you’ll have made great strides in improving your relationships. Just that one thing.
What YOU Intend Isn’t Nearly as Important Ss What The Other Person HEARS
There’s an old saying that goes:
We judge ourselves by our intentions, and we judge others by their results.
Truer words have never been said! When you speak you have access to what is going on in your heart and your thoughts, so you interpret your own actions (and what you say) in light of all the information you have.
However, when someone talks to you, you don’t have direct access to what is going on in that person’s head, so while you use the available information to make sense of their words, you do NOT know what going on inside of them. You judge them by the impact the words have on you, and NOT their intent, because...well, you don’t know their intent.
What that means is that it doesn’t matter what you intend, or what you mean, as much as it matters what results you create. If you say something offensive, even if your heart if full of loving, positive thoughts and feelings, it still comes across as offensive (the result).
Remember that the other person can only go by what you say and do — the observables, and that your intent matters much less than what the person hears.
Eliminate “Less Than” Communication
“Less than” communication involves words and phrases that tend to make another person feel you see them as “less than” what they “should” be. In their most obvious forms, they constitute put-downs, insults and blatant outright negative comments.
But the most obvious ones aren’t the most damaging, because, for example, if you call someone stupid, both of you know what you are saying, and it’s out in the open.
It’s the subtle “less than” messages that are the relationship-killers, because often you may not even be aware that you’ve said something that suggests the person is inferior in some way.
Let’s look at an example.
In a conversation about work between a husband and wife, the wife says: “Are you REALLY going to say that to your boss?”
It’s not blatantly attacking, right? But what message is sent by including REALLY in the sentence?
It suggests that the wife doesn’t quite believe the husband is quite so stupid, insensitive, and impulsive to say something the wife thinks is quite clearly a bad thing to say.
That’s hidden in the presuppositions, and the husband will hear that as criticism, even if the wife didn’t mean it to be so.
Since it is hidden, it’s hard to surface the issue and talk about it constructively. Hidden “less than” communication makes resolution difficult indeed.
Eliminate “One Up — One Down” Communication
“One up — one down communication” is similar to “less than” communication in the sense that it sends a message of inferiority or not being good enough. However with “one up — one down”, there’s an added element.
The essential message is this: Not only are you “less than”, but I’m “better than you”.
Take a look at this brief dialogue.
Tom: Marsha, I can’t believe you forgot again to pay the electric bill. One of these days, they’re going to turn it off.
Marsha: Come off it Tom, wasn’t it you that forgot to renew your driver’s licence? Yes it was, come to think of it. At least I don’t forget the important things.
Is there anything good going to come from this conversation? No. It’s set up to be a nasty, perhaps lengthy argument.
Tom starts this off by using a “less than” hidden attack, which is bad enough. Then, Marsha, probably upset, fights back by trying to become “one up”, suggesting that Tom is actually worse when it comes to forgetting things.
You can’t do either of those things and expect a positive outcome. It just doesn’t work. Competing to decide who’s worse, and who’s best isn’t going to help resolve any actual problems. It just ends up with hurt feelings and a sense of “communication futility”.
Tone Can’t Fix Imperfect Phrases (Usually)
You already understand that HOW you say something (the tone) affects how other people interpret it. An entirely benign phrase — even a phrase that sounds like a compliment, can be changed into something sarcastic or demeaning if you use certain voice tones and inflections.
Unfortunately, there are many words and phrases that cannot be redeemed by using a positive tone. Words count for a lot, so you can`t expect to use a destructive phrase and hope that your tone will somehow cushion the blow.
Here`s an example. “You keep screwing up.” No matter how “lovingly” you say this, or even how humorously you make that statement, it’s still saying the same thing, the same negative things.
Here’s another, the infamous “Whatever” word. You know the one. You say something to your teenage child, and she looks at you, and says in the sweetest tone possible, “Whatever”, and walks out of the room.
Infuriating, isn’t it. There is no way to “tone” that word so it isn’t offensive or anger provoking.
Don’t rely on tone to make up for destructive phrases or destructive presuppositions.
Simple, yes? Well, not quite so simple, because it’s one thing to understand these principles, and another to be able to use them, particularly when you are angry, upset, or tired.
But that’s all you need to start building and maintaining better relationships. Are they the whole story? No, of course not, since relationships are complex, but if you learn and apply these five principles, you WILL see and experience a difference.
In closing this chapter, keep in mind that you need to apply these principles, even if the other person does not. That might seem unfair, particularly if the other person is insulting, aggressive, or not a very good communicator, but if you want a strong, constructive and supportive relationship; if the other person IS important to you, someone has to start moving from destructive to constructive.
Don’t wait for the other person. You can’t control what the other person does, but you can control what you do and say. It doesn’t always work out, but take the perspective that “it’s up to me”, to make this better, and you’ll find the other person will often respond to your initiative in positive ways.
Good. Now we’re ready to look at the 101 imperfect phrases you need to eliminate, or improve.