Nov 052013

Words are a powerful and under-rated currency. The words we choose – and the tone in which we convey them – can be every bit as important as the meaning behind them. Actually, that’s not quite accurate because often the whole problem with the unfortunate choice of words is the true meaning it betrays, the meaning beneath the one ostensibly being expressed, of which the speaker may be consciously unaware. The listener may also be consciously unaware of the underlying message, though unconsciously he or she receives it loud and clear. Although I know nothing about neuro-linguistic programming, I believe this is its central principle.

When I find myself getting irritated with someone, I’ve developed the habit of trying to analyse what exactly is riling me and more often than not it’s about language. For example, the device of phrasing a request, “Do you want to…?” (as in, “Do you want to fetch my slippers for me?”) never fails to provoke my ire. No, I don’t want to. But if you ask me nicely then I will do it for you willingly.

My mother’s way of discussing plans is to use all sorts of expressions of obligation – we should, we must, we’d better – when what she really means is I want to. It took me over forty years to decode this message; before, I always went along with what she suggested because the language in which she couched it tapped into my sense of duty. I’m sure she doesn’t realise this is what she does but, over the decades, it’s done a remarkable job of getting her her own way.

Something else that annoys me is when people give me some news that disappoints me and then say, “Is that all right?”. If you’re letting me down, apologise and don’t try to manoeuvre me into letting you instantly off the hook.

That’s the problem in all these cases: I feel manipulated. And I can’t be the only one who has this reaction. Be honest with yourself about what you’re wanting from another person when you’re interacting with them; then be as open and honest as you can with them and I believe you’ll get a better result than you will by using weasel words.

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