By: Christopher G. Fox, Ph. D.
The language that we use in both speech and writing frames how we think about the world. As a result, we adjust our approach to the world when we change the words we use to think, speak and write about it. When we choose to adjust in this way, we can have a noticeable impact when we reflect on how our words work on our minds and hearts. In my own journey, this has primarily come from maintaining a committed focus on kindness.
As part of that journey, I have been focusing on eliminating three very common words from my mental framework, helping fine-tune my kindness practice: “is” (and all forms of “to be”), “should,” and “not.”
Beyond kindness, eliminating these words makes for better, more effective and engaging writing, too.
Why? Let’s look at each of the three words.
When we think/say something “is” something, we impose a certain reductiveness, equating what we say about it to the entirety of its being, even if just temporarily. When I think, “I am tired,” I foreclose so many other aspects of my feelings, my intentions, and my position in my own world.
Even the subtle shift of thinking that I “feel” tired reinforces the reality that I will have more energy later, that I honor my other feelings (perhaps sad or disappointed or wistful), and so forth.
Or taking it further, I can say to myself, “I did a lot of good work today,” or “I want to get extra sleep so I can do my best tomorrow,” and suddenly, my thoughts don’t judge me or reduce me to one small aspect of myself at that moment. I’m not telling a story about “being” tired anymore. Instead, such new words and phrasings open me to reflection and to action.
Similarly, think of what our words do when we say “you are wrong,” or “she is homeless.” Again, we plunge ourselves into judging another and reducing that other person to our verdict rather than saying instead “I’d like to explain myself better” or thinking about potential acts of kindness to help someone meet her immediate need for food, care, or shelter.
You can always think of a replacement for “am/are/is” thinking, in a way that makes you an agent of kindness and a wielder of your own intentions.
Yet, just for sanity’s sake, don’t drive yourself crazy trying to replace “to be” when it’s just for grammatical purposes, in cases such as “I am going,” “it is raining,” etc.
I have found, in making this change in how I use forms of the verb “to be,” that my thoughts of kindness to the world around me increase, and it makes my writing and communication stronger as an added bonus.
The language of external, abstract obligation tends to separate us from our own inner sense of purpose. It places a shadow on our opportunities to inspire collaboration with others. Words like “should” introduce a sort of implied ultimatum into our thinking and communication. “Should” also has cousins, including “must,” “have to,” and “need to.” They have similar effects.
“I should finish this,” or “I should meditate every day” — well, what if I don’t?
How much more constructive for myself if I say “I will finish this,” or “I will meditate every day so that I can think and act more mindfully.”
And when we communicate with others, every “should” shuts down a means for us to create a shared mission, when a simple “let’s” can rally and inspire instead.
When I work with employees, for example, I avoid saying “you should change this color to blue” or “you need to communicate better in meetings.” There are kinder alternatives to these are statements like “let’s create a brighter mood in this design by using more shades of blue” or “let’s all make meetings more focused on the action by using short, one-sentence statements of issues and proposed solutions.”
So, I see little use for “should” in my own life as I pursue my own kindness practice.
Directed at me, it feels like a weapon against self-compassion and personal motivation.
Directed at others, it feels like a power play.
It takes the energy out of the engagement that I am asking my reader to join in and share with me.
I’ve only just begun to focus on the word “not,” and on my intention to avoid it. Rather than thinking in negative terms, I would instead think positively, using statements that frame things in terms of what I see, feel, want, intend, etc.
To clarify, I am thinking of “positive” and “negative” in philosophical terms rather than meaning “only say nice things and think nice thoughts.” To “posit” is to put something forward or assert it, rather than contradict or negate.
The challenge for me arises because my thinking depends heavily on dialectical contrasts, where I want to say something like “does not X, but instead Y.”
However, if “Y” matters more, then why put the focus on “X” at all? While contrast, does help create clarity, I’ve started to think that I would rather use positive than negative contrasts (as I am doing even in this sentence by stating it as an active, positive preference). Dropping “not” opens up the opportunity to think more consciously about change, growth, evolution, development, etc.
You could also consider a similar line of thinking when it comes to “but” and “however.”
Reduced use of “not” and similar negators ties into my practice of kindness because it gives greater faith to what or who I am thinking about, rather than what I think about them, or my negative judgments about them.
Rather than negating a perception in my own mind, I am trying to look more carefully at that matter from the external point of view. In other words, I only have to say something “is not” or “does not” if somehow, I am combating something I previously concluded or imagined. That’s what makes “not” a weaker strategy for writing, too.
Honestly, I struggled to articulate my thoughts about “not” without saying “not”, and on the mechanics of how to do so, and I don’t think they have fully developed.
But I do remain convinced with all the certainty that avoiding “not”, along with “is” and “should,” will make me a stronger, kinder person.”
Looking for more words to think about avoiding or eliminating? 50 Weak Words and Phrases To Cut Out Of Your Blogging by Julia McCoy is a favorite of mine, too.
“Don’t call this world adorable, or useful, that’s not it.
It’s frisky, and a theater for more than fair winds.
The eyelash of lightning is neither good nor evil.
The struck tree burns like a pillar of gold.” …
Bio: Christopher G. Fox, Ph.D.
Christopher G. Fox, Ph. D. is a writer and communications strategist living in Los Angeles. He works with executives and subject matter experts to help them build reputations through messages, conversations, stories, and thought leadership.
His website, Syncresis® is a consultancy focused on thought leadership, patient communication, and content strategy. Its unique virtual operating model means that teams are purpose-built to the needs of a specific client and project.
He is also the creator of Kindness Communication®, which promotes the idea that the worlds we move in can be better places if we make kindness the core of how we operate.
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