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Watch Your Language

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

Message Number: 
1433

The way we communicate with people has a significant effect on their opinions of us. It’s not just about what we say, but about how we say it.  Becoming better communicators can heal relationships, lead to better job opportunities, and enable us to reach wider audiences with whatever messages we want to share.

Folks:

 
The posting below has some great insights on the choice of our words and the use of language.  It is from Chapter 6, Watch Your Language, in the book, The Achievement Habit: Stop Wishing, Start Doing, and Take Command of Your Life, by my colleague, Professor Bernard Roth of the Mechanical Engineering Department at Stanford University and the  Hasso Plattner Institute of Design and Stanford. Copyright © 2015 by Bernard Roth. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.  HarperCollins Publishers, http://www.harpercollins.com, 195 Broadway, New York, NY 10007.
 
Regards,
 
Rick Reis
reis@stanford.edu
UP NEXT: The MERge Pedagogical Model for Undergraduate Science and Engineering Education
 
 
Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
 
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Watch Your Language
 
 
Sincerity – If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.  – George Burns 
 
The way we communicate with people has a significant effect on their opinions of us. It’s not just about what we say, but about how we say it.  Becoming better communicators can heal relationships, lead to better job opportunities, and enable us to reach wider audiences with whatever messages we want to share. 
 
Language influences the way we see things. Public relations specialists and advertisers certainly know and exploit this, as do politicians, governments, and all sorts of spin artists. It has long been known that using different labels for the same thing will promote different behaviors. For our purposes it is important to understand what we do to ourselves with our own choice of words and use of language. Once we are aware of our usage, we can adjust our language to be more in keeping with our true intentions and the existential situations we are describing. 
 
Yes/No
Let’s start with a simple dichotomy: yes and no. There are situations in which we say one thing and mean the other. Some cultures, for example, recognize specific situations where it is considered impolite to say no; in others it is considered polite to say no when one means yes. For instance, in Iran, you’re expected to refuse at first when a host offers you food or drink.  Only after he pushes you to accept are you supposed to say yes. 
 
I often use yes and no in a simple exercise. I pair people and ask them to have a conversation where one person repeatedly says yes, and each time, the other person answers with no. After some minutes I ask them to reverse roles: the yes person now becomes the no person, and the no person becomes the yes person. 
 
Most people find it easier to say yes. A substantial number, however, report being more comfortable saying no, and very few report no difference. For me the interest is in the dynamic between the two people. It can take many forms. For example, it can have the form of an argument, a simple sober conversation, a big joke, or even a courtship.  The point is for the participants to experience the big difference between the lyrics and the music in a conversation.  In this exercise, I wrote the lyrics – yes, no, yes, no, yes, no – and the participants got to write the music and even the choreography (what tone and body language they used when they delivered their yes and no).  After they think about this exercise, people often find something in their choice of music that helps them reach greater self-understanding. 
 
And/But 
The lyrics tend to dominate the music for the words and and but. The existential situation almost always calls for the conjunction and, not but.  Yet we often use but in place of and.  The substitution is so common that it sounds correct. Unfortunately it often has the effect of changing a neutral statement into a negative one. 
 
Let’s take an example: “I want to go to the movies, but I have work to do.” The sentence uses the conjunction but to tie together two phrases: “I want to go to the movies” and “I have work to do.” Let’s assume that the existential situation is that they are both true. Then, in fact, the actual situation is represented by “I want to go to the movies, and I have work to do.” Existentially, movies and work are not in opposition.  The word but is okay in common usage, and it does not reflect the true situation. 
 
When you use the word but, you create a conflict (and sometimes a reason) for yourself that does not really exist. With the word and, there is no issue.  You might or might not choose to go to the movies or to work.  The use of but closes off the conversation space, while and opens it up. Furthermore, what follows the but is often bullshit reasoning. In improvisation terms, but is blocking: it is to be avoided as much as possible. 
 
Where are you putting your buts?
 
Whatever you’re trying to achieve, notice where you’re blocking yourself by shutting down the conversation with a but. Let’s say your goal is to get a popular internship, and it requires extensive travel. “I want this internship, but I’m afraid of flying,” you tell yourself. What your brain hears is, “Oh, well, c’est la vie. Guess we’re not doing this internship.” 
 
When you open up the dialogue with “and I’m afraid of flying,” your brain gets to consider how it can deal with both parts of the sentence.  Maybe you’ll see a therapist about it. Maybe you’ll practice meditation. 
 
The problem is that if you only use and in conversation, you sound weird.  I did an experiment years ago and went an entire weekend using and rather than but.  Believe me, you don’t want to do it. 
 
I often handle the situation when I find it prudent to say but out loud by simultaneously converting it to and internally. This works well, except when someone who has taken a workshop from me hears the but, and shows how smart they are by publicly correcting me. I smile, and I hate it. Please, don’t be a smart-ass; just fix yourself. If you want to fix your friends and family, just give them a copy of this book. It will be much better for your relationships.
 
Your Turn 
To get the flavor of this, this next five times you use the word but, simply change it to and in your mind. Do this silently by repeating to yourself what you just said out loud, with only this one word changed. Notice how it feels. 
 
Have To/Want To 
Next on our list of words to be used as little as possible is the phrase I have to. The true situation is usually best described instead by I want to.  Rather than argue with people about this, I always have them do a simple exercise, one that works best with a partner.  You compose a sentence that starts “I have to.” Your partner repeats the sentence with “You want to” substituted for “I have to.” For example, you say, “I have to finish my work” and your partner replies, “You want to finish your work.”
 
This works for just about anything, and can show you how much your own choice and desire play a role in decisions that you think are imposed on you. For example, “I have to breathe” turns into “I want to breathe.”
 
“What? I do have to breathe!” you might say. 
 
That’s true … if you want to stay alive. You have the option to commit suicide and stop breathing. Choosing to continue to breathe is a good tactic if you want to stay alive. 
 
Your Turn 
To get the flavor of this, change have into want in your mind the next few times you say “I have to.” Do this silently, simply repeating to yourself the sentence that you just said out loud, with just the one word changed. 
 
This exercise is very effective in getting people to realize that what they do in their lives – even the things they find unpleasant – is in fact what they have chosen. Occasionally, someone gets stuck on an item or two.  A good example of this is what happened with my good friend Ozgur.  While he was a student in my course, he could not bring himself to say that he wanted to take the math courses that were a required part of his master’s degree program. In fact, he knew he definitely did not want to take them, and certainly wouldn’t take them if they were not required. 
 
After graduation he went to work in industry for a year and then returned to Stanford to do his Ph.D. One of the first things he did upon his return was to seek me out and invite me for a Turkish dinner in San Francisco. He told me at dinner that even though he still found the master’s degree math requirements odious, he realized he actually had wanted to take those courses, because the benefit to him considerably outweighed the discomfort.  It was worth the wait for me: I love Turkish food, and that meal started a tradition in which, over the next few years, we sampled every Turkish restaurant in the area. 
 
Even if Ozgur had not had the belated realization about the math requirement, the have to/want to exercise would still have made its point for him.  It is important to realize that everyday life is not an exact science. In some fields, such as mathematics, a single counterexample is sufficient to prove that something does not work.  By contrast, my view of life is that if you do something and it works almost all of the time, then you might as well take it as a guideline. 
 
If Ozgur had examined his entire life and the only thing he found that he had to do and did not want to do was the math requirement, then he might as well live his life as though he wanted to do everything he did. Have you ever heard the phrase “The exception proves the rule”? Well, if you have to struggle to find a single exception, you might as well live your life as though the rule is valid. 
 
Can’t/Won’t 
Next let’s look at I can’t and test it against I won’t.  A good way to make the test is to use the same procedure as in the previous exercise. So, for example, if you said out loud, “I can’t stop breathing,” you would then say to yourself, “I won’t stop breathing.” The simple change of can’t to won’t is often empowering. Can’t implies helplessness; won’t signifies volition and choice. 
 
Similar word-change exercises worth doing are: I need changed to I want and I’m afraid tochanged to I’d like to.  Try these out the next time you notice yourself saying I need or I’m afraid to.  These simple substitutions make a difference.  They add empowerment to how you feel about yourself and your actions. 
 
Help and Should 
Two other words that are good to discard or minimize the use of are help and should. If you think about help versus assist, the difficulty with the use of help becomes clear.  When you helpsomeone, you may be treating her as though she is helpless and only you are capable.  By assistingsomeone you are treating her with dignity and saying that she, too, is capable.  Assisting is empowering language; helping can at times be disempowering language. 
 
Similarly, should is a disempowering word.  It implies doing something under obligation – sort of a have to rather than a want to.  The exercise that I like to do with this word entails having one member of a pair utter a sentence that starts with “I should …”  The partner then responds, “What is a should?” After about two minutes of this nonsense, the should person gets the idea, and it is time to switch roles so that the partner can realize the absurdity of most shoulds. It is almost as much fun to do both sides of this exercise yourself. 
 
Why Questions 
Avoid asking why questions when possible in interpersonal communications. When you ask someone why he did something, the word has a slightly negative, disapproving connotation, making him feel a need to defend himself. 
 
Instead, state your position clearly, using I statements.  Instead of asking, “Why did you choose Jane as your coleader?” say, “I felt hurt that you didn’t choose me to colead.” 
 
Straightforward, honest conversation saves time and achieves your goal effectively.  In this example, the answer to why Jane was chosen might be any goooood reason, and it most probably would not give you an opening to say that your feelings were hurt. 
 
Questions in General 
Factual questions, questions of opinion, and rhetorical questions are the most common questions used in normal conversations.  It is important to realize that not all questions are genuine ones.  Most people know there is no real question behind the customary greetings “How are you today?” “Are you having a good day?” and “How are you feeling?” People are not expecting a real answer. 
 
These seemingly meaningless questions demonstrate good-will and can be used to acknowledge another’s humanity.  When I’m asked these questions by strangers, I usually assume good-will on their part and play the game by answering as expected.  However, it is harder for me to behave when the other person is obviously preprogrammed as part of her job.  On one occasion, the devil possessed me.  I had the following conversation with a checkout clerk at a supermarket: 
 
She: How are you today? 
Me: I am dying of cancer.
She: That’s good. 
Me: Have a good day. 
 
Clearly she did as expected, and did not care about or even listen to my answer.  
 
In addition to using questions as greetings, some people regularly ask them simply to fill space. They feel they need to say something, so they ask a question. Like the checkout clerk, they don’t really care about the answer; their attention goes elsewhere, and they don’t actually even listen to it. Sometimes they deliver another question before the other person has finished answering.  In these cases the specific question is clearly irrelevant. If the questioner does not care about the answer, it is not a genuine question. 
 
In a teacher-student or boss-worker relationship, questions can also be used as status symbols. If I’m the teacher and students ask me questions, then it shows that they respect me – they want to know my answers! They think I’m smart. Right? 
 
Or it could really be the reverse: they want to be seen asking smart questions. Ever see someone blather on and on at a meeting, using big words, under the guise of asking the speaker questions, and suspect she just wants the people in the room to hear what she herself has to say? A person who is told “That’s a good question!” gains status. Being seen engaging with a person of authority on a seemingly equal plane can be the whole goal. 
 
One summer I taught a class for young researchers at a Bulgarian resort on the Black Sea. I was looking forward to the farewell party on the last evening after a long week.  When I arrived at the party, it was already in full swing.  I headed for the drinks table and poured myself a glass of wine. When I turned to face the room, everybody was sitting on the floor and looking at me. I asked the professor in charge what was happening. He told me they wanted to ask me a question. 
 
Spending the evening answering questions was the last thing I had in mind, yet I did not want to be rude; I felt I had to be responsive. So I asked all who had questions to raise their hands. It looked like everybody had a question. For a moment I saw my hopes for a pleasant evening of debauchery fading away.  Desperate, I asked that they all close their eyes and imagine they were talking to me, asking their questions. Then I asked them to imagine me answering their questions. Finally I asked them to open their eyes and raise their hands if they did not get an answer. No one raised a hand. So I said, “Good. Everyone stand up, and let’s party.” 
 
I am to this day convinced there were no genuine questions in that room – they had had all week to ask me whatever they wanted. I am especially pleased that I did not let whoever set up that question scenario hook my ego. Whatever answers they gave themselves did not get in the way of us all having a genuinely nice evening. 
 
For it to be a genuine question, the questioner needs to be seeking information.  For example, “What is your name?” “What time is it?” and “What’s the quickest way to the airport?” all appear genuine. Yet we cannot be sure unless we find out whether the questioner really cares to know the information. “What is your name?” could just be a space-filling question. “What time is it?” could be flirtation. “What’s the quickest way to the airport?” could be your coworker’s way of trying to get you to ask about the exciting trip she’s about to take. 
 
Some questions are powerful in that they promote a transformative interaction. If when you ask about something, you intend to get yourself and others thinking about it, you are asking a generative question.  If in addition you genuinely care about it, such questions are both genuineand generative; they promote a dialogue in which all parties are listening to others and are fully engaged. The questioner does not simply get back the “right answer.” The question promotes a conversation between the answerer and the questioner that alternates between inquiry and advocacy. Truly generative questions are productive for all concerned.  They result in much more than simply passing on known information. 
 
Achieving is often tied to interpersonal relationships – in short, we’re better together. When your coworkers and superiors respect you, you tend to go farther. When your friends feel you genuinely care, you form more lasting and meaningful friendships. Even on a subconscious level, people pick up on it when you’re asking throwaway questions. Don’t fill the space with them. If you’re going to ask your coworker “How’s your day?” be present for the answer.