Wordly Wise

Word choice can make a huge difference in how we communicate with one another.  I recently attended an excellent seminar presented by Terry M. Levy, Ph.D., D.A.P.A, the director of the Evergreen Psychotherapy Center and the Attachment Treatment and Training Institute in Evergreen, Colorado.  During his presentation, he discussed one of the styles of communication that is most likely to lead to constructive outcomes rather than increased conflict.  Whether you are talking with a partner or child, it is important to remember to maintain a calm voice, make eye contact, utilize soft touch (such as a light hand on the shoulder), and monitor your own body position with respect to how open or closed you come across to the other person.  For some people, sitting across from the other facilitates communication, while for others sitting side by side feels more comfortable.

One of the most important aspects of constructive communication is understanding the difference between content versus process.  Content is what we say to another person; however, the process is how we relay our message.  I often talk about ending up sounding like the teacher on “Peanuts,” such that if your process of communication is off (i.e. yelling, sarcastic, etc.), the content of the message gets lost.  When interacting with others, our bodies respond to not only what is being said, but also nonverbal cues (i.e. angry face versus understanding face) and tone of voice.  When placed in a situation where one gets the sense that the other person is angry many people go into “fight or flight” mode; meaning that the body goes into fight mode or freezes.  When this happens no matter how amazing the content of your message, the content becomes useless.  I often work with individuals (and remind myself!) that how you deliver a message can be even more important than the content.  For example, I often use the word “habit” rather than “behavior” when talking with individuals and families about changing particular actions and reactions.  For many, recognizing that they have been acting out of habit and understanding how and why that habit developed is much more effective and feels less judgmental than hearing that their behavior is “bad.”

The following ideas about how to rephrase and communicate in a way that comes across as less conflictual were part of Dr. Levy’s presentation and I’d like to share them with you:


“You can’t watch TV until your homework’s done!” vs “Feel free to watch TV as soon as you finish your homework.”

“I’m not letting you play until your chores are finished.” vs “You’re welcome to play when your chores are done.”

“You can’t have any more money until you get your next allowance.” vs “I’ll be glad to give you your allowance on Saturday.”

“You better stop that kind of talk immediately!” vs “I’ll be happy to listen when you calm down.”

Notice the difference between saying “no” or “stop” versus saying “yes” with a caveat. Communicating in a more positive, proactive way takes practice, patience, and persistence.  For some, they may see a difference the first time they rephrase a statement; while, for others, it may take consistency and directly addressing the desire for more enjoyable interactions, respect within the relationship, and collaborative problem solving to come up with solutions that encourage healthy dynamics.

Mary Kathleen Hill, Ph.D.
FamilyFirst Psychological Services