Say this, not that
December 27, 2013 4:56 AM   Subscribe

Recently I discovered some great phrases that work much better than the standard response to a situation, and was wondering if anyone had any others.

Instead of "Are you OK?" ask...
"Are you feeling sad/mad/upset/nauseous?" --my automatic reply to Are you OK is I'M FINE, even when it is not so. Asking about the more specific feeling opens the door to talk.

Instead of asking "What do you do?" or "What's your job?" at a party ask...
"How do you spend your time?" or "how did you spend your time today?" This 1) lets people off the hook if they dont have a job or don't liked their job 2) opens it up for people to describe their occupation, or at least the parts of it they find most interesting 3) opens it up for them to talk about their hobbies/family/travels/ whatever is really important to them.

(To rambunctious teens, who I have to manage as part of my job)
Instead of "Will you please stop ______" say...
"Knock it off"--generally trying to describe the behavior makes you sound silly (will you please stop running around yelling woopwoop?) and a polite but firm "knock it off" has done wonders
posted by Calicatt to Human Relations (32 answers total) 280 users marked this as a favorite
My favorites ... Yes/no questions are almost solely for extracting agreement or getting confirmation of your mental picture of something. If you want to extend a conversation, focus on "grand tour" questions that ask someone to tell you about, walk you through, help you visualize, or give you a picture of either typical or specific instances of the people, things, places, histories, events, or activities in their lives.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 5:33 AM on December 27, 2013

Insert all instances of "but" with "yes, and"

But makes people instantly defensive. They told you a thought, but says "your thought was wrong here's my thought". Yes, and says "I received your thought and would like to add to it"

I've been using it professionally all year with damn near miraculous results.
posted by chasles at 5:34 AM on December 27, 2013 [70 favorites]

"Say more about that."
posted by prefpara at 5:35 AM on December 27, 2013 [7 favorites]

Not saying anything should be in this toolbox. It's powerful. If someone offers you a deal and you're not willing to take it, stay quiet and often they'll improve the offer on their own to fill the silence.

Using "I feel" language instead of "This is" language. It can make it easier for people to hear what you're saying without feeling shouted down. I learned to do this while critiquing people's writing, but it works in many other situations.

Also, this comment by not that girl is excellent. Lots of good suggestions in the rest of the thread, too.
posted by pie ninja at 5:41 AM on December 27, 2013 [9 favorites]

One thing that I learned that is brilliant is that you should phrase things as a positive, not a negative. For example:

"Remember to clean the cat box." Remember is a positive word, also as the words ring in the ears it's "remember, remember, remember."

"Don't Forget to clean the cat box," has two negative words, Don't and Forget. If either one is ringing in the recipient's ears, trust and believe the cats will be tip-toeing on Mt. Poopmore.

Replace "don't do X" with "Do Y."

It works really well with Husbunny, who admittedly can't hold two thoughts in his head simultaneously.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:50 AM on December 27, 2013 [21 favorites]

If you're working with teenagers, say "thank you" instead of "please" because it assumes they're going to do it; "sit down, please" is a request they can ignore. "Sit down. Thank you." is still polite but means you know they're doing to do it and, in fact, assumes they already have.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 5:54 AM on December 27, 2013 [5 favorites]

2nding chasles. The word "but" will negate everything that comes before it. "You're a lovely person but...", or "I don't want to sound like an asshole but... Using "and" links the two clauses without negating one of them.
posted by rmd1023 at 6:24 AM on December 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Instead of asking "What X would you recommend?" ask "What's your favorite X?" (for restaurants, brands, etc). People are better at knowing what THEY like, instead of having to guess what you might like.
posted by specialagentwebb at 6:26 AM on December 27, 2013 [6 favorites]

When asking my husband for something that is important, I say "I need you to please ..." Instead of just "please...." It helps him prioritize my sense if urgency.
posted by dpx.mfx at 6:58 AM on December 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you are in a position of authority and want to politely but firmly issue an instruction, say "do X please," rather than "please do X."

(But, be aware that this formulation can really get people's backs up if you are NOT in such a position.)
posted by navizzar at 7:01 AM on December 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

If I'm mystified by why someone did X, I'll say "Help me understand why you did X" instead of "Why the hell did you do X?!" It's a little forced, but it's much less likely to put someone on the defensive.

If I want to ask about someone's tattoo, I'll ask "What does your tattoo mean to you?" instead of "What is that tattoo?"
posted by southern_sky at 7:04 AM on December 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

For teens:

Say "I expect" as in, I expect it to be quieter, I expect this area to be tidy (they can't say no or stop you from expecting even when they may choose not to meet your expectation)

Also, "take it or leave it"

"Sorry I'm not buying it"

"You'll have to do better than that"

Are all very difficult to argue with....

In difficult convo where I wanted someone off a subject I disagree with but am tired of discussing I have said: I suppose. People think they are at least partially agreed with and will often back down... In reality you've accepted their premise in theory and it gives you room to breathe!
posted by misspony at 7:32 AM on December 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

"May I ask you a favor?"
"May I ask you a question?"

Replace with actual request. You save yourself a few words, and you don't set the other person up to need to agree to something without knowing what it is.

"May I ask you a favor?" ---> "Can you help me with a ride to the store?"
"May I ask you a question?" ---> "What was it like growing up in Guatemala?"
posted by QuakerMel at 7:46 AM on December 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Start sentences with "I" instead of "you" if you're making a complaint.

Instead of

"You never do the dishes!"


"I feel like I'm doing more than my fair share of the dishes" or something like that.

Another example, replace

"You didn't include the ketchup in my order"


"I believe I ordered ketchup with this."

People tend to get less defensive (and therefore more open to your needs) this way.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 8:05 AM on December 27, 2013 [17 favorites]

Say would instead of could because could implies lack of capability.

Would you take out the trash?
Could you take out the trash?
posted by tamitang at 8:14 AM on December 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Someone once told me that expressing any opinion OR fact with "I think" or "I believe", especially in debates or arguments, gives you a certain sort of leeway in that you aren;t outright disagreeing with someone but you are still able to make your own point clearly heard. This language tweak is similar toRuthless Bunny's in that it takes the negativity out of the interaction. I find this very helpful on Facebook.
posted by Brittanie at 8:27 AM on December 27, 2013

I like dpx.mfx's "I need you to..." a lot. That "I" makes a huge difference, as opposed to saying, "You need to..."

I have a high-strung coworker (in a non-supervisory position) who loves to tell everyone, "You need to do X! If you would do X, Y would happen! You need to do it!" It instantly makes people defensive and angry, because it implies two things: (1) they're not doing their job, and (2) she knows how to do their job better than they do. Using "I need you to..." gets the same message across without the...rudeness? Presumptuousness? In any case, "I need you to..." is very effective. "You need to..." is not.
posted by coast99 at 8:38 AM on December 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ruthless bunny has it. I used to work with child care centers and learned a ton. If you say to a toddler Don't Run they hear Run, which reinforces running. So you say Please walk and Use your indoor voice, etc. Don't set kids up to fail. If it's time for lunch and you say Did you wash your hands? hungry kids say Yes, so you say Go wash your hands.

With adults, I try to remember the power of silence. Once I've stated my case, I don't *have* to argue.
posted by theora55 at 8:43 AM on December 27, 2013 [17 favorites]

If a patron is getting belligerent, I tell him/her to "compose yourself!". For some reason that registers with them 99% of the time, and "calm down!" registers about 5% of the time. I think that "calm down!" reminds people of something that one would say to a child (making the angry person angrier - "what am I, a child???"), but "compose yourself!" appeals to the adult side of the belligerent person that you hope is reachable in there!


When thanking servicepeople, I try to specifically thank them for what they have actually done. A quick, robotic "Thank you" can be a knee-jerk reaction and it doesn't hold much weight. "Thank you for helping me find the saurkraut" or "Thank you for hooking up my cable, now I can watch the Olympics" helps to bring home what the person did. As a person who often works the front desk, I like to hear why I'm being thanked. It's much more meaningful than just a social reflex "thankyou" as the person is walking away.
posted by Elly Vortex at 8:51 AM on December 27, 2013 [17 favorites]

Response by poster: These are great, thanks! Keep 'em coming!
posted by Calicatt at 9:21 AM on December 27, 2013

Another one my Dad used and that I used when I was teaching was, "I love you too much to let you get away with that."

Really, really excellent.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:04 AM on December 27, 2013 [14 favorites]

A lot of times, communication is more about building a relationship than finding the "5 language hacks that will get you what you want, now."

For example, replacing "but" with "yes, and." I understand the logic behind it and I am very much a "but" person, and I've been trying to move from "but" myself.

But, I have coworkers who have replaced "but you're wrong, and I'm right" with "Yes, and you're wrong and I'm right." It feels even more patronizing that way, because not only are they telling me I'm wrong, but they're trying to use a "life hack" to soften the blow!

So, step 1 is always to be a nice person.

And, so as not to just be chatfilter, here's my suggestion for what you should say:

"Ah, that's interesting. Let me make sure I understood you correctly - am I right in thinking that you said ______________? Yes? Ok, well, I do have a few opinions on that idea, but I'm not sure that you would find them useful. Is there a specific decision you are facing that my opinions would help with?"
posted by rebent at 12:31 PM on December 27, 2013 [5 favorites]

When one of my students is being a total shit, I often want to say, "WTF is your problem?? Cut that out."

Instead I take them aside privately and say, "Hey, this isn't like you. What's really going on?" It defuses things and usually I find out the actual root of the issue.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:27 PM on December 27, 2013 [12 favorites]

When stopped by a police officer, instead of making excuses or getting riled up, the thing to say right away is: "How can I help you, officer?"

When dealing with customer service, acknowledge their power. Instead of "I want you to give me a refund, upgrade, etc" say "I realize it's completely up to you but I would very much appreciate a refund, upgrade...etc"

Rather than stating "this isn't fair" in a dispute, try "Do you think this is fair?" And really listen to the answer.

Finally, if in doubt, if in trouble say: "Help me understand....."
posted by storybored at 4:57 PM on December 27, 2013 [8 favorites]

Replace "always" and "never" with trufax. The tendency when we're upset or complaining is to say, "You NEVER do X!" or "You left your crap ALL over the place!" It immediately puts people in denial mode--with good reason. Replace these statements with, "It seems like it has been a few weeks since you did X and I wish you would do it now" or "I want you to put your things away, I like it to be tidy." It's really, really hard to retrain ourselves to stop making the all or nothing statements, but it makes a world of difference when it comes to communication.
posted by BeBoth at 7:04 AM on December 28, 2013

Instead of asking a child what their drawing/picture is, say "Tell me about your picture!"

Instead of asking a young adult what they want to be when they grow up, ask them, "What do you want to do next?"
posted by whimsicalnymph at 12:19 PM on December 28, 2013 [7 favorites]

This material might be overwhelming, but it's concrete and prescriptive. Taken from a University web site that tutors parents how to deal with oppositional or negative behavior by young children. You would need to adapt for use with adults. This link is the manual for coaches

Go directly to the listed pages for specific word choices and instructions. There are a lot of repetitions and forms.

page 11 and 12

pages 68-79 [page 77-78 has a list of 8 rules for effective instructions, which takes the form SAY THIS instead of THAT]

page 128

page 208-219
posted by ohshenandoah at 1:23 PM on December 28, 2013 [6 favorites]

My mother was the mayor of our town for many years, and she prided herself on being very available (we never unlisted our home phone number, for example). This meant hearing a lot of complaints and wacky suggestions. Her two favorite responses were:

I will give that all the attention it deserves


You may be right.

Delivered with the correct facial expression, these result in happy citizens and a sane and calm mayor.
posted by tractorfeed at 9:20 AM on December 30, 2013 [13 favorites]

Instead of nagging people about small things (put your seatbelt on, can you do the dishes, will you fucking put your socks in the hamper?) just say the noun. Seatbelt. Dishes. Socks. It removes a lot of the emotion from the exchange, and provides the other person with a reminder of what they need to do, without turning it into a thing.

Also, my parents were really good at painting our not-so-fabulous traits in a new light, like so:

Melissa is a picky eater -> Melissa has a selective palate.
Melissa is too sensitive -> Melissa is highly attuned to her needs and the needs of others.
Melissa is finicky -> Melissa prides herself on a neat environment.
Melissa is stubborn -> Melissa really sticks to her guns; she's got a lot of focus.

After a while, the phrasing re-writes the narrative. My parents said the second sentences instead of the first, and it made it a lot easier to work on those things. I mean, I'm still picky and stubborn, but I harness those powers for good, not evil.
posted by punchtothehead at 1:17 PM on December 31, 2013 [4 favorites]

If you'd like to compliment someone, for example, "You look nice today!" there's a risk of implying that they don't ordinarily look nice. Instead say, "You look extra nice today!" and voila, no potentially negative implications.
posted by keep it under cover at 11:03 PM on January 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

Replace "What's wrong?" with "How can I help?"
posted by mattbucher at 8:21 AM on January 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

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