Blog Post

Choose Your Words

By: Zeb Merson

When I was raising and educating my son, Dylan, I noticed a significant response pattern. Every time I told him not to do something, it was the very next thing he did. The first time I told Dylan not to touch the woodstove, he touched it and was genuinely shocked at the result. He had been burned before, knew the words I was using and the accompanying pain, but he was compelled to touch the stove when I said not to. I didn’t believe he was being defiant, (that came later) but I did think he was testing me. Because of his young age I chose to consider another possibility. As I questioned and listened closely to him I realized he had to picture himself doing what I didn’t want him to do in order to think of himself not doing it. I began to reframe my comments and demands. Instead of saying, “don’t touch the stove,” I would explain what was going on inside the stove, how it affected the stove itself and what happens if the stove is touched when there is fire inside. I would ask if he had any questions and then answer them. I would periodically ask him if the stove was hot and could I touch it. “Hot!” he would tell me shaking his head. Another method was to tell him how to do something, instead of how not to do it. Instead of, “Don’t eat the orange with the peel on it.” I would say, “This is how I eat an orange”, as I peeled it, gave him half and ate the other half. When I didn’t approach him in this way, he would often fail. I taught him how to hit a ball with a bat and he was a good at playing baseball. When he started having trouble hitting the ball a year later I started telling him what not to do when we practiced. By the end of the season he quit playing and refused to play again. To this day all he remembers is what he was taught not to do, which translated into him being taught he wasn’t able to do it.

I’ve pondered this for a couple of decades now. I have no science or sociology to cast the idea as true, but it continues to make sense relative to observation and experience. Very often it isn’t so much what is being said, but rather it’s the way I choose (or not) to say it. I can take the time to consider what I say before I say it, or allow it to roll out of my mouth without a second thought. I’ve discovered I have to ask myself what I’m looking to get out of the situation. One way of expressing myself can quickly justify an argument. Delivering the same message with moderately different words can get a similar message across while maintaining the peace. A prime example is criticism. When I was critical about my son’s batting style using language that told him what he was the wrong way, regardless of how kind and patient I thought I was being, his response was to retreat further and further into the belief that he was no good at hitting the ball with a bat. If I had chosen to encourage what was effective in his efforts and discuss what could be done to further improve his swing, there may well have been a very different outcome.

It’s really about perspective. I either communicate the glass is half full or that it’s half empty. The truth remains the same, there’s still half a glass of water, but the outcome may be radically different. How many circumstances can you come up with where you can see this applies in your life? How do your choices apply to your words before they come out of your mouth? Can you think of times a slight change in a choice of words could have altered the events between you and your spouse? One of your children? How about a conflict at work, or what you said out the car window during a blazing hot summer rush hour? We owe it to them and to ourselves to find the words that hold the greatest truth we can perceive in relation to who and what we want to be in this world. We all hold the key to effective communication, we just need to learn how we can remember to use it.

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