You Don’t Say!
We speak in negatives without realizing it. Imagine what that does to our brain. Conversely, imagine what turning those unintentional negatives into positives would subconsciously do to enhance our lives and the lives of others?
Wouldn’t it be wonderful? Translated: Would not it be wonderful? Why do we say that? Especially when we could say: That would be wonderful!
For the past half year, I have been collecting negative phrases. (I’m a communication coach, so this is my idea of great fun).
Some negative phrases such as: “We cannot not communicate.” just muddle the mind and need immediate tuning out or time-consuming, distraction-causing translation.
How about those mindless knee-jerk reactions we say when we’re supposedly reinforcing someone’s thought:
- No way!
- You don’t say!
Some negative phrases lure us into sounding as if our thoughts transcend all vocabulary:
- Words cannot express how I feel…
- I can’t tell you how…
Here are some negative phrases, taken literally, we do not intend to communicate:
- It wouldn’t hurt to pick up a gallon of milk while you’re out. (I hope not!)
- I’ll see if I can’t drop by.
- Wouldn’t you agree?
- He wants it in the worst way.
- He’s awfully nice. (What!?)
- He wants the reward badly.
- You wouldn’t know where the restroom is, would you?
We use some negative phrases to make us sound profound. I put them in the “What does this mean?” category:
- No small amount of coercing convinced her. (What does that mean?)
- That’s nothing short of a miracle.
- It never rains but it pours.
- I’m talking about none other than…
- He couldn’t care less.
- frustrated to no end
- anything less than
- It didn’t take two hours to help… (Are we asking how long it didn’t take?)
Some negative phrases just scream to be expressed in the positive:
- Nothing is impossible (Everything is possible.)
- There’s no other God than our God. (One God exists. / Ours is the only God. etc.)
Some phrases are just verbal clutter:
- I don’t know about you but… (eliminate this)
- He’s nothing but a boy (He’s young.)
- Nothing has impressed us more than… (We are most impressed with…)
- No one has contributed more than she. (She has contributed the most.)
- He is not unschooled. (He’s educated.)
- More times than not…
How about those negative phrases we’ve heard others say and we don’t even bother to decipher:
- I told him in no uncertain terms…
- I’m nothing if not punctual.
- She’s the best actress—bar none.
- It wasn’t for naught (or, It wasn’t for nothing)
Some negative phrases are just grammatically wrong–double negatives:
- can’t hardly
- You ain’t seen nothing yet.
Some negative phrases derail and steal the limelight:
- We couldn’t ask for better friends. (Are the speakers saying they weren’t allowed to ask for better friends…or, if they were allowed, they were physically unable to do so?) How about: They are our best friends.
Some phrases put a damper on responses to everyday pleasantries:
- How are you? Not bad. or I can’t complain.
- What kind of a job did he do? Not half bad.
- Thank you. No problem
- What do you think? That’s not a bad idea
Are you ready for irony? We are actually seeking agreement when we phrase these questions in the negative:
- Wouldn’t it be nice…?
- Don’t you think?
- Why don’t you come over tonight for dinner
- Why not bring your friends along too?
- Didn’t we decide on that last Tuesday?
Our minds struggle with processing negatives such as “not” and “no.” For example, when we hear “Don’t (do not) think about lime colored worms, we first have to think about lime colored worms to NOT think about them.
That’s why the following phrases need to be turned into the positive:
- Don’t fall. (Watch where you step.)
- Don’t forget to…. (Remember to….)
- Without a doubt, he is the winner. (He is the winner.)
- Don’t use negatives. (Use positives.)
- Don’t arrive after 7:00. (Arrive before 7:00.)
- Don’t send so many emails. (Consolidate your emails.)
- No littering, loitering, cursing or using unnecessary and confusing phrases! (Be neat, ambitious, professional, succinct and clear.)
- You won’t be disappointed. (You’ll enjoy it.)
- Can I bother you to…? (Possible answer: Yes, you can bother me. Instead say, Would you please….?)
- I don’t disagree with any of it. (I agree with all of it.)
And finally, some negatives are legitimate transitions. I recommend using them sparingly:
- not only…but also
Be kind to your listeners and readers and think before you use negatively laced and consequently convoluted phrases. Those to whom you communicate will see you as a positive, empowering person…and they will have no idea why they feel that way!
Go for it!
Communication Skills Consultant and Coach Elizabeth MacDonald specializes in public speaking instruction as well as teaching positive, professional, clear and engaging communicating. Her company, The Verbal Edge, is located in Tampa Bay and in Fort Wayne, Indiana where she offers individual coaching and workshops.