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Story #1 - An aunt of mine went with us to the beach when I was just a little kid. She was a young teenager at that point, and the group decided to rent bicycles. She was not a regular cyclist, and to this day she’d tell you that athletics are not her forte. Anyhoo, they were riding their bikes down the side streets in Wildwood, NJ and she was saying to herself, "Don’t hit the parked cars, don’t hit the parked cars, don’t hit the – " when you know what happened. Bam! She t-boned one smack in the middle of the rear bumper.
Story #2 – When she was asked for gift suggestions, I was old enough to remember my mother telling my grandmother, the inveterate Christmas shopper, “I could use some new slacks. But whatever you do, don’t get pink – I have enough pink.” Guess what Grandma bought and wrapped for Mom’s Christmas present. Yep. Slacks the color of a tropical sunset – oh, were they ever pink.
My aunt in the first situation and my mom in the second were exasperated. But they weren’t aware that they had inadvertently hidden the wrong commands in their language. They told themselves and others to do exactly what they didn’t want them to do. If you repeat “don’t hit the parked cars” your brain hears everything but the “don’t.” If you emphasize "no pink" the person retains "pink." So you create conditions where you’re more likely to hit those cars and receive a gift that's destined to be returned.
If you're a parent, this concept may show itself in your disciplinary efforts. Have you said any of these things to your children?
You can choose to embed positive commands into your language. For example, if you would say to a loved one, “You can relax now,” you’re giving them a command embedded in a comforting statement. Or you encourage a friend to talk by saying, “Tell me what you were thinking about that situation.”
Embedded commands can help prompt a response from a person just as well as a direct question can, but they can have a softer touch. This helps you in situations where the person you’re talking to might be feeling sensitive, or where the topic itself might be emotional or controversial.
If you think that someone has overreacted to a “simple” question you asked them, think about whether you asked a question with embedded commands. Your commands might be communicating assumptions that aren’t valid, or might imply judgment. “Does that outfit make you feel fat?” sends the message that feeling fat is relevant to the situation – in other words, might suggest that you think the outfit makes them look fat. If, on the other hand, you want to be supportive of that friend’s weight loss efforts you could choose to embed a positive command, “Does that outfit make you feel sexy?” Or if you want to choose to be neutral a preferable question would be, “How does that outfit make you feel?”
Your language holds so much information of which you’re not conscious, but that impacts your emotions and the quality of your relationships with others. If you choose to be more aware of the manner in which things are expressed to you and by you, you can have so much more insight into what’s creating the dynamic between you and other people. You can be better able to use your critical thinking to separate fact from opinion. You can become more skillful at relating to others in a win-win manner. And that benefits everyone.