Grammatically speaking, a sentence may consist of a single word:
I separated those into separate lines to avoid the mental image that would come of combining them. Each of these sentences contains a verb, which we see, and an “invisible” (understood) subject — the audience to whom we are talking.
You’re fascinated, I’m sure. But that isn’t what I mean to talk about here. (And aren’t you glad?)
Now consider the following:
These words are also sentences. They are not grammatical sentences, but rather sentences handed down in the courtrooms of the heart. They are issued by a judge to a party presumed guilty, scarlet letters with which we intentionally — or unintentionally — brand people. Sometimes for life.
Words can be sentences – sometimes for life. Click To Tweet
Unfortunately, we use words as sentences in this way often. It’s easy to construct their delivery.
“Why are you so lazy?”
“You are the most selfish person I know.”
“You’re such a liar!”
In short, negative labels like these paint people in terms of something they are and not merely what they did. They are sweeping. Total. Overwhelming.Negative labels that paint people in terms of what they ARE and not merely what they DID are overwhelming. Click To Tweet
What’s more, they are ultimately counter-productive. When you brand someone with a negative label such as “lazy,” what is your goal? Isn’t it to motivate them to be more industrious? Likewise, when we call someone a “liar,” isn’t our goal to somehow get this person to tell the truth? But when we say that someone is lazy or a liar, we are actually locking them to the behavior – not encouraging them to change. Negative labels (as well as positive ones, for that matter) create expected behavior.Negative labels are counter-productive. They create expected behavior rather than encouraging change. Click To Tweet
A fish swims. And so, if I believe I am a fish, I expect to swim.
A liar lies. If I believe I am a liar, then I expect myself to lie. After all, others do.
Other words that can be sentences include extremes:
“You always do this to me.”
“You never listen.”
Again, if I am led to believe that I always do something, I will keep right on doing it. Likewise, if I believe that I never do something, I have no reason to start doing it now.
So how do we turn these “sentences” into constructive communication?
Start by thinking and speaking in terms of the specific behavior happening right now, rather than in sweeping references to character or in laundry lists of past offenses:
“You’re falling behind on this assignment” or “You failed biology this term” -not- “You’re lazy.”
“I asked you to take the trash to the street and you didn’t” -not- “You never listen to me.”
“You forgot to lock the doors when you left last night” -not- “You have no common sense.”
“You left your socks on the bathroom floor” -not- “You are a slob” or “Why do I always have to pick up after you!”
If I choose to speak in these specific terms rather than assigning negative labels, I am separating the behavior from the person. People do not feel able to change or correct something they are, as created by our labels. However, they most often do feel able to address and correct one specific behavior at a time.
Sometimes we play both the judge and the convicted, passing down these “sentences” on ourselves:
“I am so stupid.”
“I’m the worst mother ever.”
“I’m a failure.”
The effect is the same as if we had stuck these negative labels to anyone else. The solution, likewise, is the same: to think and speak in terms of specific behaviors I would like to change about myself, not in broad character judgments upon myself.Think and speak in terms of specific behaviors you'd like to change, not in broad character judgments. Click To Tweet
This is just one effective tool among many for improving communication, avoiding conflict in relationships, and allowing ourselves to break self-defeating patterns in our own life. (Much of my book, “The Best Advice So Far,” is devoted to this and other such tools.)
As I said above, throwing out words as sentences upon people is easy. Rethinking how we say things then is, by comparison, more difficult. But, as Thomas Jefferson said, “Anything worth having is worth fighting for.”'Anything worth having is worth fighting for.' ~ Thomas Jefferson Click To Tweet