Watch Your Language: Why We Should Stop Skinning Cats

Language Wordle

People often ask what is more important – what you say or how you say it?

They are both important – this post focuses on the language we use to convey our ideas, and how they can effect the conversations we have.

As someone who believes that life is 50% content, 50% presentation, the language we use in our daily lives fascinates me. I’ve seen people who have a lot of great things to say, but their delivery made for a less than compelling message. On the flipside, I’ve heard people who are amazing presenters and communicators, but they lacked substance. In the marketing world we are in, we tend to embrace the latter, and they may succeed at least in the short-term. Ideally, you can have a strong message that is presented well, and it ‘sticks’.

Why do we talk the way that we do? Do you think about the origins of what you are saying or the impact of how you speak on the effectiveness of your message? Or the end results?

The words we use affect our conversations. Think about a racial slur, a derogatory term, a swear word, a slang word for a body part. These have more obvious effects because of the societal taboos put upon them. They draw instant emotional reactions.

Now think about these other categories of phrases and words that we use that impact your conversation in ways you may not even think about – until now.

Phrases with violence to animals

For some reason, a lot of these phrases have made their way into our regular vocabulary. They are quite graphic and violent, and yet are spoken by some of the most mild-mannered and peaceful people, because they are widely accepted phrases.

  • There’s more than one way to skin a cat
  • Kill two birds with one stone
  • Let’s stop beating a dead horse
  • Not enough room to swing a cat

Instead, can we find less violent alternatives? They don’t have to be boring and can convey the same message. How about instead of skinning a cat, we say, “There’s more than one way to scale a mountain”?

Failure talk

When we use certain words or phrases, there is a subconscious psychological effect on ourselves or others. These phrases can be especially toxic in organizations because they can destroy productivity and creativity.

  • “I will try…” or “I aim…” or “Hopefully…” or “If we are successful…” – these phrases imply the possibility of failure and are proven to make the achievement of whatever you say afterwards less likely to happen. Instead, say “I will…” or “When we succeed…”
  • “It’s impossible…” or “I can’t do it…” – by saying these phrases, you are creating negative reinforcement pathways in your brain. Steve Jobs had the sentiment that you can achieve the impossible if you don’t know that it is impossible. Keep an open mind and think about how you can make something happen, and you will be surprised at the results. If you must say you are not doing something, say “I choose not to…”, which at least reinforces your own power to make choices.
  • “That’s a bad idea…” – as adults, we often shut each other down before letting great ideas breathe. This can stifle creativity and eventually make us stop generating or sharing ideas. This is an innovation killer. Open your mind to new ideas. At the very least, we can learn from and build on ideas that initially may not make sense to us. Huge change doesn’t happen without creativity.

Bad apologies

Apologizing is a difficult thing to do. When done right, you can rebuild bridges, repair relationships and ease tension. When done poorly, you can make things much worse very quickly. The first step is being sincere about apologizing. Next is making sure the language you use doesn’t have the opposite effect you intended to have.

  • “I’m sorry but…” – think of the word ‘but’ as a magic eraser that eliminates everything you said right before it. This apology doesn’t take on any accountability, and that is what the other person is usually looking for.
  • “I’m sorry that you were offended…” – saying it this way also doesn’t take accountability for your actions. You are disowning your role in the situation.

A real apology would start more like this – “I’m sorry for what I did and for offending you.” An earlier post I wrote talks about how to really apologize.

Compliments

Sure, we all like to be told something nice. Maybe for a few moments, it makes us feel good about ourselves. Usually, a compliment is superficial and doesn’t require much understanding of who you are as a person. It doesn’t hit deep into our souls, so it likely doesn’t have a lasting effect. Check out what compliments sound like:

  • I like your shirt
  • Good job
  • You are awesome

Nothing is wrong with compliments – they can be nice and uplifting. However, if you really want someone you care about to know that they are important to you and really elevate their spirits, consider using acknowledgements which are very specific and speak to the essence of who the person is. Here is what an acknowledgement sounds like:

“The way that you handled that situation really speaks to your courage and resolve. You always have such a strong way of reading people and what is important to them, and I’m sure that is why you are able to manage difficult situations that come up.”

So what can you do to start using better language? The main thing you can do is to really listen to yourself and others – by being conscious of the language you are using, you can make better choices and increase the success of your communications. That is, if you care about that sort of thing.

Constant Questions: What language do we use that has effects we may not even realize? How can we become more aware of the impact of the language we use, and change it for the better? I guess we can’t do it, because it’s impossible. I’m sorry if you are offended, and I don’t want to keep beating a dead horse, but your idea is bad. Well, at least you’re wearing a nice shirt.

This post was inspired by conversations with my great colleagues at Future Possibilities for Kids, where we talk about random issues like this all the time in the interest of self-development and building our own leadership and coaching skills.

BONUS: Another thing that has an effect on others around us is grammar. Like it or not, when you use bad grammar, it may take away from your message. Weird Al preaches on this below.