Did you hear what you said?

Or, did you read what you wrote? Whether in verbal or written form, words are powerful. As communicators, we know "the pen is mightier than the sword." On the positive side, words can be used to praise, comfort, congratulate and express love. But on the negative side, words can embarrass, belittle, manipulate and judge.

Sometimes our words inadvertently become negative, and we set up resentment instead of rapport when we communicate. Why does this happen? According to Sam Horn, author of Tongue Fu!(r) and speaker at the AWC National Conference, we often use words that cause conflict instead of words to create cooperation. She notes there are five trigger words that can be eliminated from our vocabulary in order to communicate without conflict.

1. "But" - The word "but" anchors sentences into an argument. For example, if the boss says "You did a nice job on the story, but you didn't get a quote from the CEO to detail the plans for the company's expansion," the employee would not hear the compliment before "but" and would become defensive on the subsequent request. Instead, Horn recommends using "and" to move the conversation forward. "You did a nice job on the story. Would you also get a quote from the CEO that explains the company's expansion in more detail?" Instead of making the employee feel like he or she did something wrong, this sentence simply acknowledges good work and request more.

2. "Should" - The word "should" criticizes and shames. And since there is no way to change past actions, its use is completely unnecessary. Instead, Horn suggests using phrases such as "next time," "in the future" or "from now on" to make you a coach and not a critic. Here's an example. If an employee is late for work or a child misses curfew, don't say "You should have called me if you were going to be late." Instead, try this approach: "In the future, please call me if you will more than 10 minutes late." This turns an accusation into a simple request.

3. "You Need To" or "You Have To" - Telling someone they "need" or "have" to do something creates tension because people don't like to be ordered around. Horn says to change the order to a request by using "if you would" or "could you please." Instead of saying "You need to complete the brochure design by noon," try requesting "Could you please have the brochure design completed by noon because I would like to present it to the client in our meeting at 1 pm."

4. "Can't Because" - The phrase "can't because" is a verbal door that turns allies into enemies. For example, if the kids ask permission to use the PlayStation and you say "No you can't because you haven't done your homework," then the kids see you as the person getting in the way of their fun. If you say, "Sure, as soon as you do your homework," then the kids understand they have permission as soon as they take action and complete the homework.

5. "There's Nothing" and "There's Now Way" - What is the one thing you don't want to hear when you are speaking to a customer service rep to get your problem solved? "Sorry, there's nothing I can do." As we southerners say, "Those are fightin' words." Whoa! Horn notes that a better way to respond is, "I understand your situation, and I wish I could do something to help. Do you have any suggestions?" Now the conversation can move forward and options can be discussed. These simple suggestions are easy to implement and can really make a difference in how people respond and interact with you. While this commentary has focused mainly on the power in our external words, don't forget about our internal words. What we say to ourselves has the same ability to break us down or lift us up.

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