Friday, September 25, 2009

Speak Easy Note #4 - Accentuate the Positive

There is a fond memory I have of being on jury duty and waiting to be called for jury selection. I had finished paying the bills I had lugged with me and had updated my address book; I wanted to continue to use the waiting time productively. The previous week, all of the consultants in the firm where I then worked had been asked to write an article on any topic of their choosing. The one requirement was that they have great passion for their chosen subject. For a long time, I had carried a dream in my heart that one day I would write a book on communication. And so it was a natural choice to write about good communication for this assignment. I had come up with the title: "Accentuate the Positive" and was writing away when I realized that the words I had just written were in opposition to the solid advice I was recommending.

I looked down at these words and started laughing:

"Don't use negative sentence formation to express your thoughts and feelings."

For some reason, I felt totally stuck and unable to express the advice in any other way. By an odd twist of fate, the person sitting next to me was an editor for a publishing company. I turned to him and quietly asked, "How can I express this without committing the very mistake I am recommending that people avoid?" He looked at me in astonishment that I was struggling with something so obvious and simple, and replied,

"Use affirmative sentence formation to express your thoughts and feelings."

I quickly experienced my second good laugh of the morning which was certainly welcome during that tedious extended downtime that tends to fill the greater part of jury duty.

That was long ago. The article turned out to be four pages long. When I got to the end of it, it felt like I had written all that I had to say about good communication. I said to myself, with a sad sense of having lost an important dream, "Well, maybe you won't be writing a book on communication after all if this is all you have to say on this topic."

How sweet it feels to have written SPEAK EASY, The Communication Guide for Career and Life Success which has been completed and ready for purchase through Word Craft Press for the past three weeks. SPEAK EASY is 231 pages long with a six-page introduction, by the way.

In a future blog post, I will fill you in on the conception of SPEAK EASY long after that jury duty experience and on the five-year gestation and labor period that it took me to bring SPEAK EASY to the marketplace. What a wonderful sense of accomplishment I get when I look back over these recent years and especially when I remember what the disappointment of my lost book dream felt like when I wrote “Accentuate the Positive” so many years in the past.

The word for this week’s Speak Easy Note is “NOT”. It is laughable that I found it impossible to identify an alternative way to express my recommendation in the affirmative way back then. Here's an excerpt from SPEAK EASY on this important topic:


For every comment that has the word “not” in it or is constructed in the negative, there’s an affirmative way of saying exactly the same thought. Many people have a natural tendency to use the negative formation of sentences rather than the affirmative.

They prefer to say,
“It isn’t necessary to wash the dishes tonight.”
rather than say,
“It’s okay to leave the dirty dishes until tomorrow.”

They choose to say,
“No problem, I don’t mind at all.”
rather than say,
“Absolutely, I’d be delighted to do that.”

Their first inclination is often to say,
“That will never work.”
rather than say,
“Here’s what will make that really successful.”

They start their sentences with
“I don’t think that …”
rather than say,
“My opinion is …”

It’s an extremely beneficial exercise to become acutely aware of how often you use the negative form in communication and to find a way to express exactly what you want to say using an affirmative form instead.  Obviously, saying the words, “not” or “never” in your communications will be appropriate and acceptable in many instances.  If, though, you can get yourself to be aware and challenge your use of negative expression, you will find that it’s easy to switch to the affirmative and the value of making this switch is vast.  It’s always better to be thought of as a positive person rather than a negative one.

To begin to appreciate this value, reflect on the fact that one of the most common ways of expressing agreement is the response, “no problem” which is comprised of two negative words, one of which indicates difficulty.  Rather than introduce such negative wording into a positive expression of agreement, it’s certainly preferable to use affirmative words like “definitely”, “with pleasure”, “sure”, or “absolutely” than to reply, “no problem” when you want to give an affirmative response.

Compare the following pairs of sentences:

AVOID: “I don’t want to relocate to London.”
BETTER: “I want to live and work in San Francisco.”

AVOID: “I don’t want to join the product team.”
BETTER: “I want to remain in the private banking group.”

AVOID: “No problem...”
BETTER: “Absolutely, tell me more about it.”

AVOID: “I don’t like it that you never include me in the planning meetings.”
BETTER: “I want you to know how much I’d like to participate in the planning meetings.”

AVOID: “Since I didn’t have enough time this week, I won’t be able to finish my report until next Friday. ”
BETTER: “Since I had unexpected commitments this week, I shifted priorities and will be able to finish my report by next Friday.”

AVOID: “I didn’t realize how long it had been since we saw each other.”
BETTER: “How wonderful to spend time with you after all these years.”

Establish good language patterns by using affirmative sentence formation whenever possible. Avoid negative sentence construction and stay away from negative or confrontational language, even in the subtlest ways. So often people describe what they don’t like or don’t want to do rather than focus on what they like and do want to do. Describe what you want to move toward rather than what you want to move away from.

Next week we'll look at the needy syndrome and how certain word patterns can infiltrate our communications, becoming crutches to relinquish responsibility. 

Until Friday,
The Wordsmith

Friday, September 18, 2009

Speak Easy Note #3 - The Destructive Disclaimer

No More Buts

Finally, here's the "trouble-maker" I've been teasing you about for two weeks.  It's such a tiny word and can be quite benign; it's also capable of causing significant havoc. 

What would happen if you made a pact with yourself to go through an entire day without saying the word “but” a single time? It may be much harder than you think. For some reason, people have a tendency to get from one thought to the next through the use of this tiny word:

 “I like coffee but I like tea better.”

“London is a pretty city but Paris is more beautiful.”

“I’m going to a movie but I’d prefer to see a play.”

 “New York has great architecture but Chicago’s architecture is magnificent.”

So you see that “but” can be a useful word to connect thoughts and can be totally harmless or simply practical in a lot of what we say.  Let's look at one kind of instance where "but" becomes a trouble-maker.

If you validate what people have said to you and follow your validation immediately with a disclaimer that begins with “but”, you will have negated what you said in the prior validation statement. Also, you will have set the stage for argument rather than discussion:

AVOID: “I hear how much you want to go to The Bahamas over Christmas but I hate the hot weather and want to be where I can ski for the holidays.”

BETTER: “I know that you want to go to The Bahamas where it's warm for the holidays. It’s really important to me to be in a cooler climate and ski over Christmas.”

By eliminating “but”, you can create a natural progression to add another affirmimg sentence like:

“Let’s figure out how to plan our vacation time so that we both are happy with our choice.”

Adjusting the words and tone of your communication to reflect a level playing field of communication without the “but” negation will bring ease and enhancement to difficult conversations.

To break the pattern of frequently using the word “but”, see how often you can end one sentence and start the next one without saying “but” or can substitute the word “and” in place of “but” whenever possible.

“New York has great architecture but Chicago’s architecture is magnificent.”

“New York has great architecture and Chicago’s architecture is magnificent.”

“New York has great architecture. Chicago’s architecture is magnificent.”

To gain many more COMMUNICATION TIPS go to
Word Craft Press to learn about and purchase "SPEAK EASY - The Communication Guide to Career and Life Success"

The next Speak Easy Note will be about still another three-letter word that can set exactly the opposite tone from the one that is desired in any communication. 

Until next time,
The Wordsmith

Friday, September 11, 2009

Speak Easy Note #2 - Loss Is A Teacher

Last week I promised to write this Friday about a certain three-letter word that causes trouble and have decided to change my choice to a completely different four-letter word. This Friday is 9/11 and the only word that feels right to me to write about is LOSS.  For the past eight years on 9/11 I have commemorated the solemn losses that took place on that day in 2001.  Each year on 9/11 I walk from Ground Zero to Union Square in Manhattan.  I walk to remind myself of all of those people I saw walking north that day in 2001 with their shoes covered with ashes.  I walk to honor those who would never be able to walk again.  I walk to celebrate the gifts that come from loss.

The following is an excerpt from SPEAK EASY, The Communication Guide for Career and Life Success.

Loss Is A Teacher

For many people, a major communication deficit is the ability to face and talk about loss. Ernest Hemingway wrote, “Life breaks everyone and some become strong in the broken places.” In the play, The Fantasticks, there are these lyrics, “Without a hurt, the heart is hollow.” Loss is certainly a great teacher. What’s most precious to us is what we can lose most easily or what’s hardest to protect from loss. Loss is a natural outcome of living and it’s how we cope with it and how we see it that can be the source of our strength and the basis for developing the ability to master life’s challenges.

Since loss is inevitable, the more we can learn to focus on and communicate the gains that come from loss, the more we will experience loss in ways that are manageable and life-enriching.

There are many factors over which we have no control. We do, though, always have control over our perspectives and what we say to reflect them. The goal is to deal with what you face head on and to say what you want directly, rather than resort to being an ostrich.

The more you can talk about loss, using language that reflects what you’ve gained from what’s missing, the easier it will be to experience loss in a powerful, learning, and full-of-growth way.

The most striking example to illustrate this communication shift for me occurred in 2001, shortly after 9/11 in New York City. I was walking through Bryant Park on a glorious autumn day. Giant white cloud-puffs floated in the brilliant blue sky behind the gleaming surrounding skyscrapers. I had been experiencing severe grief over the senseless destruction and needless sacrifice of life that had occurred a few weeks before. Like many New Yorkers, I’d been living with an enormous weight that I carried everywhere. It had kept me terrorized reclusively within a tiny radius of blocks from my home and office. Every communication I had, focused on my unbearable sense of loss. I had only just begun to venture beyond my fabricated self-designated safe zone.

Suddenly, a recognition and feeling of gratitude came over me. I felt grateful to be alive, to see the magnificence of my city, to know how precious life is, to recommit myself to making a difference in the world, to be able to give back for all that I had. I saw the world as inviting again rather than terrifying. Strangest of all, I felt gratitude to the terrorists for providing an unthinkable way for me to gain such deep appreciation. I knew that if I could go back in time, change history and pluck those airplanes from the sky, I’d have waved that life-saving magic wand in less than an instant.

Somehow I’d found a way to see and communicate the beauty of what I’d lost and the magnificence of what I’d gained from loss.

Without painful and extraordinary loss, we can never value and see what we have in such a deep way. I’ve made dramatic choices in my life that often astound people. To me these valiant but simple choices reflect what I’ve learned from loss. Loss is our best teacher. “Without a loss, the heart is hollow.”

Here are contrasting ways to speak about life situations that demonstrate how you can adjust your perspectives and the way you communicate regarding loss:

AVOID: “Without my wife of fifty-three years, life’s not worth getting out of bed each day.”

BETTER: “The memory of my wife of fifty-three years gives me renewed strength to tackle life every day.”

AVOID: “I’ll never do that again, after all that I lost the last time I tried it.”

BETTER: “The next time I do that, I’ll know a lot more about how to go about it, based on what I’ve learned from my previous experience and loss.”

AVOID: “Now that I no longer have a mentor to guide me, I feel so lost.”

BETTER: “With all I gained from my mentor who is no longer here, I have many great teachings to draw from and use as guides to the present and future.”

Looking at life from a different perspective and finding language to reflect that perspective is the goal of choice. The more you shift perspectives about loss to perspectives of gain and use language that demonstrates the new views, the more successful your communications will be and the better you will feel about yourself and what you have to say.

To learn more about and/or purchase the book go to Word Craft Press

Next week, the three-letter trouble-maker word will finally make it's debut on Speak Easy Notes.

Until next Friday,
The Wordsmith

Friday, September 4, 2009

Speak Easy Note #1 - Back to School

It's Labor Day weekend. What better moment to start a new blog and write Speak Easy Note #1! Summer fun is coming to an end and it's a traditional time for more serious focus.

With bittersweet memories of the new school year's opening days, of daylight fading earlier and of cooler air on the skin, I am recapturing the sweetly metalic scent released when being the first to open a newly printed textbook. How fitting that my new book SPEAK EASY, The Communication Guide for Career and Life Success has just become available online through this week.

On page 164 of SPEAK EASY there is an important reminder about the word "WHY" that I almost forgot to include in my book:


Avoid asking questions that begin with "WHY" because they can be seen as accusatory. If you want to know why a person did something, ask instead:

"Tell me more about this and how you decided to ..."
"What were the reasons you chose ..."

"WHY" is the one open-ended question to eliminate from your repertoire.

When people want to know, "Why not WHY?" - I remind them of what it feels like to hear,

"Why didn't you take out the trash?"
"Why didn't you do your homework?"
"Why didn't you finish your report?"

I was in the post office this week, listening to a person waiting behind me in line on her cell phone. I heard her repeatedly responding to someone with one word questions following periods of listening:




I knew this conversation was going downhill and that the person on other end was getting more and more frustrated and angry.

What a huge amount of pushback can come from this three-letter word.

Tune in next week for another three-letter word that can cause tremendous trouble!

Happy end of summer.