Politeness is something we are taught to value. We typically praise young children when they “use their manners” and when they choose their words carefully (i.e. “I would like a glass of juice please” verses “I want juice” OR “I feel sad when you say I need a timeout” verses “You’re a mean mom and I don’t like you”). Kids tend to be blunter in their communication and as they grow older, the hope is that they learn to more delicately express their needs, desires, emotions, opinions, etc. Regardless of what we practice, as adults we typically understand the value of using honey instead of vinegar. However, there are a couple of phrases that we insert into our daily conversations to disguise criticism and at times just plain old insults.
“No offense but…”
The more I hear it used, the more convinced I am that folks think using this phrase means they can say literally ANYTHING they want to say. It’s almost like people believe that just because they say that they don’t want you to be offended, that they have a license to say the most offensive things.
“No offense but you are really lazy.”
“No offense but you look like total crap.”
“No offense but you’ve been a huge jerk lately.”
It’s like almost saying “Brace yourself because I’m about to verbally assault you!” I’m certain that you can identify a thousand additional examples. Adding “No offense but” to any of the aforementioned statements didn’t make them A) Any more polite OR B) Any less brutal.
“Bless your heart.”
It’s pretty clever, right? You can say almost anything you want and if you just remember to follow it up with “Bless your heart” you’re in the clear—you’re still super courteous and kind. Not so much.
“You have gained so much weight. Bless your heart.”
“It’s almost like you never grew up. Bless your heart.”
“It smells like something died in your mouth. Bless your heart.”
You get the idea. Even if you sprinkle sugar into spoiled milk, the outcome is unpleasantly sour. Why should you care about choosing your words carefully? According to The Gottman Institute, research suggests that even just the way we start a conversation matters a lot. In fact, the first 3 minutes of dialogue predicts the outcome 96% of time. Here are a few simple steps you can take to ensure that your words are used as effective tools instead of lethal weapons:
#1 Soften your words
Coming from a place of vulnerability often feels risky. Hence why we are often tempted to use defensiveness or criticism as armor. However, people tend to be more receptive to the former. “I’m feeling really hurt by your actions” is much softer than “No offense but you’re being a complete idiot and it makes me mad.” Most of the time there are deeper emotions underneath anger. Look for those softer feelings. It’s hard to cuddle something that‘s prickly.
#2 Pay attention to your tone
Communication is not only about our actual words but also how we say them. I often use a radio metaphor. If we turn the dial up too high, things get so loud that the words cannot be understood. The same holds true if the volume is too low—nothing can be heard and the meaning is lost.
#3 Soften your face and physical stance
If I told you “I love you” while crossing my arms and scrunching my face, I doubt you’d feel much warmth. The way you look during a conversation can influence how receptive the other person is to the message you’re attempting to send. Open arms, relaxed facial features and kind eyes (i.e. the exact opposite of laser beam eyes intended to kill!) are important when trying to communicate effectively.