“What” is often a better, and more accurate, word to use than “Why”. Here is why.

How many times have you been asked by someone, or you asked another person, “Why did you do that?” The most likely answer is: many times.

Well, when you were asked, “Why did you do that?”, what was your emotional reaction?

Probably, you became defensive, or maybe a bit anxious or angry, and you attempted to offer an excuse or a reason which would justify whatever you did and, at the same time, help you avoid getting in trouble.

If you felt anxious, you interpreted the question as challenging, or judging, what you did and as implying some sort of future negative consequence if your answer to the question was not satisfactory.

If you felt anger, you interpreted the question as inappropriately challenging. or judging, what you did and as intrusive. You saw this question as a threat to your autonomy, your judgement in choosing the action you took, or your competence.

Whether you felt anxiety or anger, your reaction was to defend yourself and you offered an excuse or justification for what you did.

The tendency of the word  “why” to elicit a defensive reaction is the reason you probably want to minimize using this word in your interactions with others. Especially, your kids.

I am not saying you should never use the word. Rather, I am suggesting you think about the reason for the question you are asking (Why you are asking it.) and the information you seek in the answer you receive.

When you ask a person, “Why did you do that?”, what you really want to know is:

  • What was the basis for your decision to (do what you did)?
  • What did you hope to accomplish (by doing what you did)?
  • What other alternatives did you consider (before you did what you did)?
  • What motivated you (to do what you did)?

Notice that all of these questions begin with “what” instead of “why”. The weakness of the word “why” is that our behavior is multi-determined.  In other words, there are many underlying reasons or motivations  for the actions we take. Consequently, when you are asked “why”, you may not, in most cases, exactly know why you did what you did.

Now, in some cases, you may know why?  For example, you can say why you chose to watch the football game instead of the cooking show or why you chose the iPhone over the google phone.  And so forth.

The word “what”, in contrast, focuses your attention on the choices you made or the reasons you used prior to taking the action in question.  If you think about it, this is the information you are actually seeking.

For the reason, the next time you question someone about an action they took, start your question with the word “what” followed by the information you want instead of the word “why”.

In so doing, you are mastering emotions because you are using your awareness of the emotional process to avoid eliciting an emotional reaction which may negatively impact your relationship with the other person.

If it is you to whom the question “why” is directed, master your emotions by not reacting to the implications of the question.  Rather, answer the question as if the word “what” instead of “why” had been used.

I welcome your comments.

You Cannot NOT Communicate

The title of this blog post may look like I added an extra word.

I assure you, (no pun intended) that I did not..

The point I am making, and that most people miss when they interact with others, is that we are always communicating something whether we intend to or not.

Most people believe that communication is a fairly simple process. This is an unfortunate myth.

The process of communication, while I admittedly am simplifying the process, can be illustrated with two examples.

Example #1: Think back to the days of the telegraph.  If you wanted to send a message, you had to write out the message, the telegraph operator had to convert it to Morse Code, the wires had to be in place between you and the place to which you were sending the message, the receiving  operator had to get the signal, decode the message, and write it down so that your target person could receive your message.

The first example illustrates the verbal communication process.  Most of us can easily encode an idea into words, deliver the words, and expect the receiver to accurately decode the message and understand what we mean and intended to say.  And, in most cases, when it is factual information we are communicating, this process works.

There are some underlying assumptions here.

  • Both of the participants speak the same language and can understand the words being used.  Words can be thought of as one “filter” through which ideas are processed. (One way to understand the idea of a filter is to think about what happens when you take a black and white picture with your camera or smart phone. The filter takes out the color.) Words can have a multitude of meanings and, therefore, can be thought of as a filter in that you choose the words you eventually use based on what you want to convey.
  • The message is clear, does not involve emotional issues in either party, and is not easily misinterpreted. (Emotions are another “filter” through which ideas are processed.)
  • Both participants are paying attention to each other, are not distracted by “noise” in the environment (think about having a conversation in a loud lounge), and are “actively” listening with the goal of receiving and understanding the message.  They are not  “passively” listening while engaged in some other activity such as texting or planning tomorrow’s schedule.

If we are dealing with issues involving emotions (or complex issues), the process becomes more complicated.

Example #2: Think about the last time you sent a text or an email thinking that you were being very clear only to have the person to whom you sent this electronic message get upset because they misinterpreted the message they received.

The second example illustrates a situation in which the message has several different “layers” but the only layer of information that is “available” is what is “written” down.

There are several possible complications here:

  • The message may contain implied emotional overtones. For example, you are upset with the person and have not directly expressed your feeling.
  • You may have directly expressed your feelings but the meaning of the emotional words you have used were misinterpreted when “decoded” by the recipient of the text.
  • You tried to use humor in your text or an emoji.
  • And so forth.

By the way, the above process is why we are frequently advised, and warn our kids, to be very careful about what they send in an email or a text.

There is a quote from the Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) literature that says: “The meaning of a communication (to the receiver) is the response that you (the sender) get regardless of what you intended to say.”

The receiver’s (upset) response clearly suggests that he (or she) viewed the message as “threatening”. This is the “real” meaning of the message to him.

If the communication process is to be successful, you will need to determine where the “disconnect” is. Perhaps, the misunderstanding occurred because the message contained implied emotional overtones that were included in the message (either intentionally or unintentionally) or the receiver read emotional overtones into the message that were not there.

When you are involved in a face to face conversation, there are additional complications that can take place because of the nature of non-verbal signals.

  • Non-verbal signals comprise a significant (perhaps, major) portion of the communication process and involve your tone of voice, the expression on your face, the way you are standing and so forth.
  • An important part of the emotional process is the constant scanning of our surroundings that our senses engage in, our Amygdala monitors, and our bodies unconsciously react to if there is a threat.
  • Our primitive brain is programmed to “read” non-verbal signals because they are often a more accurate (though not always so) indicator of possible threat. This is because humans are not very good at modifying their non-verbal signals (unless they are trained to do so).

Consequently, you are always communicating non-verbally and your listener is always tuned into your non-verbals.  Hence, the title of this blog: You cannot NOT communicate.

An example of this potential conflict is  the saying “Your actions speak so loudly, I can’t hear what you are saying.”

Communication problems can arise for at least two reasons:

  1. The meaning of non-verbal signals is not always clear and can easily be misunderstood.
  2. The non-verbal signals you are communicating with your tone of voice or body language are not consistent with the verbal message.

You master your emotions (and the emotions of others) when you are aware of and utilize the nature of non-verbal (and verbal) signals.

  • In your own communications, take extra care to insure that the message you are conveying non-verbally is consistent with the words you are using.
  • Be aware of the non-verbal signals your receiver sends to you, the emotions indicated by those signals, and the message those emotions tell you about how he or she has interpreted your communication. Using this information, you can seek clarification if what you see in their response is different from what you expected and you can clear up any misunderstanding.

I hope this information is helpful and I welcome your comments.


The emotional meaning of a word is in the person NOT the word.

Have you ever said (or did) something only to have the person with whom you are interacting, react in a way that totally surprised you?

Of course you have.  We all have. But you may not know why this occurred.

There is a quote from the NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) literature that says: “The meaning of a communication is the response that you get regardless of what you intended to (say/do)”.

Another way to put this is that the emotional meaning of a word is in the person not in the word.

Let me explain.

While it seems to be a simple process, and sometimes it is, communicating with another person can be very complicated.

Each interaction involves you (the sender) and the other person (the receiver).  Your job as the sender is to pick the best words to convey what you want to say.  This is called  encoding. The job of the receiver is to listen to you and get the meaning you are trying to send. This is called decoding.

Several different processes can complicated the encoding and decoding of words. These processes serve as obstacles to successful communication.

  1. Do each of you have a sufficient vocabulary to pick the best word?
  2. Are both of you engaged in the communication process such that you are focused on each other, avoiding external distractions, and concentrating on the message?
  3. Are both of you paying attention to insure that your own emotional issues do not interfere with the message being communicated?

While there are more issues that can interrupt communication, these three give you an idea of the potential obstacles that exist to successful communication.

Emotions become relevant in obstacle #2 and #3.

In every case, you respond to another person based on how you interpret what they are saying (or doing).  Your interpretation of another person’s words depends on your emotional state.  This is obstacle #3. If you are “primed” for anger because you are thinking of a previous incident in which you were mistreated or you have a history of incidents with the other person, the filter through which you will perceive what they say will be one of self-defense and you will more easily get angry.

If you have had a good day or you have a positive or neutral history with the other person, you are more likely to give them the “benefit of the doubt” and possibly reserve judgment on any questionable communication.

A similar process goes on for other feelings.

The same is true for another person whose reaction to you suggests that they have misperceived what you said because their reaction does not match the words and emotional tone you were trying to communicate.

Let me give you an example:

You go into your office to start your workday and you say to one of your co-workers: “How are you?”

A. If your co-worker says “Great, how are you?” then you have had a successful interaction.  In most cases when we say “How are you?”, the meaning of the words are simply “I acknowledge you.”  Saying “Hello”, “How is it going?” or “Good morning.” all mean the same in this context.

B. But, suppose, your co-worker says: “Wow, I am really glad you asked. I had an argument with my spouse, the dog had an accident on the rug, and I had trouble starting my car this morning.  Oh, and did I mention…..”  In this case, he (or she) interpreted your question as meaning ” I really want to know about your life.  Give me all the details.”

C. Or, if your co-worker says: “Why do you ask?” or “What’s it to you?”  In this case, your co-worker has interpreted your question as unnecessary prying or intrusive.

With examples B and C above, it is not what you said but how the other person misinterpreted what you said that led to the unexpected response. The other person put their own spin or interpretation on your words and reacted “as if” you meant to say what he “heard” you say.

Or, to put in another way, the meaning of a word  is in the person or the meaning of a communication (to another person) is the response you get (from that person).

Using the Emotions as Tools Model, you can infer how a person perceives you based on the emotional tone of their response to you and the message of that emotion.

If they respond in an angry manner, then you know that they have perceived you, or what you said (did) as a threat.  You know this because the message of anger is that a threat has been perceived that the angry person believes they can eliminate.

If the response you get suggests that the other person is anxious or cautious with you, then you can assume that they perceive you as a possible threat that might hurt them. This is the message of anxiety.

With this knowledge, you can ask them for clarification.

You can say: “I am surprised by how you responded to what I said.  What did you hear me say?”

Be sure not to label what they said, take offense, or blame. Your initial goal is clarify what is going on with them.  It is possible that you did not use the right words or that you had an emotional overtone in your voice. Or, maybe, the misinterpretation is totally on them.  It doesn’t matter at this point as, for now, your goal is clarification.

There is always time later on to seek additional clarification, if needed, apologize for any misunderstanding or respond to their emotion, if appropriate, or rephrase what you said.

I welcome your comments.

Hesitate to ask for what you want? Why and what you can do.

Have you ever wanted to ask someone for something but hesitated?

Examples include:

  • Asking someone out on a date
  • Asking someone to help you on a project
  • Asking a co-worker for some needed information or for a report
  • Asking a boss for a raise

We all have.  But, have you ever thought about why you hesitated?

While there could be many reasons, concerns, justifications, or ways in which you rationalized your not taking action, the underlying barriers to your not asking can be boiled down to two issues.

Before I lay these barriers out to you, however, let me give you some insight into the process of rationalization.  Rationalizing is a psychological defense mechanism which allows us to justify whatever action we take with “reasons” which, while we may accept them as sufficient to back up what we want to do, might not carry much weight or significance to a third, unbiased, observer.

Why is this? Well, while the correct spelling of the word is R-A-T-I-O-N-A-L-I-Z-E, the psychological spelling, or underlying process is R-A-T-I-O-N-A-L    L-I-E-S.

When you rationalize, or justify, an action you are taking, or something you are not doing, you may be manufacturing excuses or “lies” which appear to support the position you are taking.

Now, I am not saying that you are intentionally telling an untruth (a “real” lie), although you could be.  I am saying that the reasons you are giving yourself, when seriously analyzed, probably won’t hold up to examination.  Hence. I am calling them “lies”.

So, what are the two underlying barriers which result in your hesitation to ask for what you want and how do you get around them?

The first barrier to your asking for what you want is emotional.

The anxiety that you are feeling and experiencing as distress will stop you in your tracks.  Remember that anxiety is a future based emotion, the message of which is: There MAY be a threat out there and it MAY  “kill” me.  The word kill is in quotes because with anxiety, we aren’t talking about physical death but some outcome which we believe could be “disastrous”, unwelcome, or significantly damaging in some way.

The question that elicits anxiety as distress is: What if  A, B, and/or C happens? where “A”, “B”, and “C” are worst case scenarios. This is called “catastrophising”.  Inaction happens when we accept A, B, and/or C and the answer to this question as inevitable  and back-off to avoid the unwanted outcome.

The second underlying barrier to your not asking for what you want has to do with your self-image and is experienced as a sense of your own unworthiness.  You do not believe that you are either justified in asking for what you want or that you are worthy enough to have your request granted.

There are 4 questions which, when asked and answered by you, will enable you to overcome these barriers.

  1. What is the worst that can happen if I do ask for what I want?
  2.  If the worst happens, can I survive it?
  3.  How will I benefit if the outcome I want happens?
  4. Is the request I am making (or question I am asking) a valid, reasonable (given the situation), and appropriate (again, given the situation) request to make?

Questions 1 and 2 are designed to address the anxiety.  If you can identify the worst case scenario that underlies your anxiety and you can survive (however you define this word) the disaster you are envisioning, then you no longer need to be bullied by your anxiety. You may still feel some anxiety but it will not be overwhelming.

In the case of requesting something from someone, the unwanted “disaster” usually involves some form of rejection, either of you, personally, or of the issue you are raising.

And, the answer to the survival question should, in nearly all cases, be “yes”.

Following these questions, you can use your anxiety as a tool to motivate you to get the facts you need, do whatever preparation you might have to do, and think through your request, prior to approaching the person and making your request.

This is using anxiety as “eustress”.

Question 3 turns anxiety into its mirror emotion…  anticipation.  Anticipation is also a future oriented emotion and elicits the same energy as anxiety. Anticipation, however, looks ahead and envisions a desirable outcome. Since you want the outcome to occur, you are more motivated to make the request and ask for what you want.

Question 4 indirectly addresses the question of worthiness.  If the request you are making is valid, reasonable, and appropriate, then the request is its own justification for being asked.  You, as the “requester” become worthy by implication because the request is worthy.

Yes, I know that the question of self-worth is far more complicated than this, can impact your life in a multitude of ways, and could require professional help if it becomes a clinical issue but, in the case of hesitation as we are discussing, this usually is not what is taking place.

So, to wrap up, Questions 1 and 2 directly address the distress of the anxiety which may be a barrier to your asking for what you want and uses anxiety as a tool (eustress) to motivate you to prepare for action.

Question 3 turns anxiety into anticipation so you are motivated to take the action you have prepared yourself for.

Question 4 indirectly addresses the question of worthiness AND (as a bonus) can give you additional motivation to ask for what you want.

Thanks for reading and I welcome your comments.



The Atomic Power of Words: Learn to Harness It Part 2

In my last post, I introduced you to the atomic power of words to elicit feelings.  Feelings, in turn lead to behavior.  It is the connection between words feelings and actions which give words their power.

The downside of this relationship between words and actions is that the words we use can be misunderstood by others. Misunderstandings can elicit behavior we may not want.  Consequently, it is critical that we use words that are less likely to be misunderstood and, therefore, are more likely to generate the responses (behavior) we would like.

In this post, I want to address what I call “stop” words and replacing them with “go” words.

Stop words are words which when used tend to leave others feeling deflated, unmotivated and stuck. The same end result occurs when we use these words and direct them toward ourselves.

Go words are motivating.

It is important to note that the specific word you use is less important than how that word is interpreted on a feeling level.

Specific stop words are: “can’t” as in “I can’t…”, “problem” as in “We’ve got a problem.”, “should” as in “You (or I) should …” and so forth.

Let’s take the word “can’t”.  What we mean when we say we “can’t do something” is usually that we may see obstacles in the way of our accomplishing the task.  While there may be obstacles, the issue with the word “can’t” is that your brain may interpret the word as “impossible”.  If you say “I can’t do this.”, what you may feel is that it is impossible for you to do it.  If you truly were facing an impossible task that you felt compelled to overcome, you might get depressed, feel overwhelmed, stop trying, lose motivation and so forth.  When you tell yourself you “can’t” do something, you react as if the task facing you is, indeed impossible.

Another way around the word “can’t” which both acknowledges the difficulties the event you are facing represents and elicits a feeling of motivation is to say, “This situation is admittedly difficult but it is doable.”  “Doable” is a go word. Emotionally, your brain is satisfied that the situation has been correctly labelled as requiring great effort and you remain motivated because you believe you have the ability to persevere and overcome.

If you tell someone else they “can’t” do something or you are told that “you can’t do something”, the reaction you may get is defiance or resistance.  In this case, the word “can’t” is perceived as an unfair imposition of power and might elicit the emotion of anger.  The message of anger is that a threat is perceived that can be overpowered.  In trying to deal with a threat you view as “unfair”, you, or someone else such as your kid, may be motivated to rebel, look for ways to get around the imposition and so forth.

In both cases, the word “can’t” is a stop word because it impedes forward progress and weakens motivation.

I am not saying you can never use the word “can’t”.

I am saying that if you do use it, explain what you mean by looking at the obstacles that exist or the issues which prohibit another from taking a specific action.  You might say, “You can’t do this because…”

You get a similar reaction when you use the stop word “should” as in “I should go on a diet.” or “You should be more….”.  The initial reaction is resistance as in “Why?”, “Who is gonna make me?”, or “Who says.”  Think about your own reaction when someone like your doctor or your spouse tells you that you “should” do something like lose weight, stop smoking or exercise more you tell yourself that you should do something like your New Year’s Resolutions.

Another stop word is “problem” as in “We have a problem.”

I don’t know if you remember the movie Apollo 13 but it is a true story about an American crew whose space ship explodes.  While the crew is alright, their ship is severely disabled and there is a real possibility that they might not be able to get back to earth.  The captain of the mission, played by Tom Hanks, radios the command center back on earth and says,
“Houston, we have a problem.” In this case, the problem was a life threatening, potential disaster with no immediately obvious solution. The word “problem” implied potential catastrophe.

It is the emotional connotation of catastrophe that makes the word “problem” a  potential stop word.  Someone tells you that they have a “problem” or you tell yourself you “have a problem” and the emotional reaction is anxiety, disbelief, or, possibly, inadequacy.  The message of anxiety is that the situation you are facing might be a threat that might “kill” you.  The emotional behavior elicited by anxiety is stress or withdrawal.

Instead of labeling an event as a “problem”, you can call it a challenge or even a very difficult challenge. The word “challenge” is a go word. When facing a challenge, the emotion elicited might be excitement or enthusiasm, or motivated.  The ensuing behavior is solution focused activity designed to meet and beat the challenge.

When you are aware of the strong emotional impact that words can have on the behavior of others and on your own actions, you can begin to master the atomic power of words to motivate yourself and others. Stop words can result in inhibition, withdrawal, or resistance. You might want to avoid using stop words, replace them with go words or, when you do use them, provide a context in which the word you use makes sense and doesn’t elicit emotions and reactions you do not want.

I welcome your comments

The Atomic Power of Words: Learn to Harness it. Part 1

The word emotion comes from a Latin word meaning to move.  Emotions have, over time, evolved to move us to action. As I discussed in the emotional cycle, the primary emotions of mad, sad, fear and disgust are primitive threat detectors which subconsciously alert us to and prepare our bodies to react to a threat which could have a negative impact on us if not addressed.  We manage an emotion when we validate it, adjust our arousal level and stop the initial emotional reaction before we act on it.

We go beyond emotional management to emotional mastery when we assess the nature of the emotion, decide if the emotion does, indeed, match the situation in which we find ourselves, and choose how we want to respond to that situation.  If the emotion matches the situation, we choose to let the emotion motivate us to take effective action.  If we have misperceived the situation and the emotion does not match what is happening, we can choose to change our perception of the situation and let the emotion subside.

With this in mind, I want to make you aware of what I call the atomic power of the words you use to generate feelings (same as emotions) which in turn motivate you to take specific actions. We master the power of words when we are aware of the emotions specific words can elicit and choose the words we use to match the situation we wish to create.

Most of us spend too little time thinking about the words we use both in our conversations with others and in our “conversations” with ourselves. All communication starts with an idea that you may have which you attempt to put into words. The challenge is that we try to compress the multifaceted picture we have into a static, often oversimplified word. The person to whom we are speaking has to decode the word using his, or her, own set of filters hoping to recreate the same “picture” we originally encoded in the words we use.  Use the word “breakfast” as an example. Maybe you are thinking of an American meal steak and eggs and someone else is thinking about a continental meal of yogurt and pastries.  Same word… different pictures.

Oftentimes, the other person does not accurately decode our message.  This leads to a misunderstanding which can elicit emotions we did not intend and would rather avoid.

By the way, because words can be misunderstood, you need to be careful when you send a text, a letter, or an email to another person like a boss. You may know what you want to say but what that other person “hears” is very different.  The emotions your words elicit in that other person may be very different, and sometimes detrimental, than what you intended to convey.

There are words which leave you, or someone else, feeling excited, energized, and ready to act.  These words are motivating and move us forward.  I call these “go” words.

There are other words which leave you feeling turned off, overwhelmed, unexcited and stuck.  I call these “stop” words.

There are other words which can have unintended effects.  One example is when a parent tells a child, “You should be ashamed of yourself.” We will talk about this is a future post.

Because we often only “see” what we intend to communicate, we may miss other ways our words can be interpreted. When this happens, the atomic power of the word can backfire.

We will talk more about “stop” words in the next post.