On ways to use your words better

I have decided that if we had to reduce all the reasons that we thought we communicated down into just one, then that one reason would be ‘recognition’.

When I tell you things about my life, it’s because I want you to see my experience of things happening, I want you to recognise something.

I first thought about this a long time ago when in a lecture by Catherine MacKinnon, who spoke about ‘selecting the right domain’ (using the law to identify things for what they actually are) in order to achieve justice: justice understood as a recognition of the experiences of victims (read more here). Since then, I have encountered a number of situations which I think are explained well by an articulation of the importance of recognition: like hearing my Mum talk about the relief of someone she went to court with, whose elation after the ruling stemmed not from the back-payment she was awarded but rather that, “they believed me”. Even yesterday, an article was shared to facebook by Jo, Why Children’s Books Should be a Little Sad, which I think works on this same principle of recognition.

Over the months I’ve been thinking about this (+ about the fact that I really must be an internal processor!), I have tried to map this idea onto the ways that I use words and engage with people, in the hopes that it will help me to express love to people better. So here we go with the outcomes of this thought:

1. No silver-linings

Back in October, I watched this SoulPancake video, an experiment into empathy involving fake parking tickets, and was transfixed.

It shows (and really, you should take the five minutes to watch it) the impact of the way we approach people who tell us about something bad which has just happened to them – like a parking ticket.

The conclusion is this: if you want to help someone feel better about a circumstance, don’t say anything that could fit into the category of a silver-lining, say nothing of the form ‘at least…’ or ‘it could have been worse…’. I cannot emphasise enough how good the video is at demonstrating both this, and how much better the alternative is!

2. If someone says ‘Look!’, then turn

One of the (many) wonderful moments from New Year’s was Naomi coming into the kitchen humming a song I had discovered this last term, which I had shared with her (’56’ from the album ‘Living Liturgies’ for the curious among you). It really touched me that she had obviously been listening to it and had enjoyed it too.

This is an outworking of something I read many years ago now, which means I can’t remember exactly what the context was, or where it was from! All I have remembered is a scenario in my mind of someone washing up and looking out the window to a bird hopping along the grass and exclaiming what they are observing to another person sat down away from the window, reading a newspaper. In the best relationships, the person reading the newspaper will always get to their feet (with enthusiasm) and come and watch the bird hopping along the grass, no matter whether or not it is of consequence to them.

I’m not actually sure that was what I read, but the above is the scenario I attached to it, and since that point I try and listen out for any cue of ‘Look!’ no matter how inconsequential I think that may be. In my experiences so far ‘Look!’ has taken many forms, including, among other things, fleeting facial expressions, mild gasps and laughter – they all operate in the same way of ‘Look!’.

Every time someone says ‘Look!’, you have an opportunity to connect. It’s not worth missing out on, however much you may wish to pretend you haven’t been given that cue just so that you can continue focusing on whatever task you have in hand (and think about it – when have you done this? because I’m pretty sure we all have at some point).

3. Replace ‘I’m proud of you’ with ‘I admire _______’

This point isn’t really directly about the expression ‘I’m proud of you’, it’s about noticing when we use words as a sort of lazy short-hand, because we haven’t quite identified what it is we want to say.

It was one of the walks I went on with Flora this term that I first thought about this (thank you Flora). ‘I’m proud of you’ is definitely one of the expressions I have used in the past where actually I wanted to say something else but didn’t expend the energy to think about what that something else was.

You can also take this principle and apply it again to itself. If you are thinking about what you admire about someone, and you think ‘I really admire how welcoming they are’, think about what ‘welcoming’ is shorthand for. What is it that they do or say that makes you feel welcomed by them?

How I can use my words to bless people around me has been on my mind for quite a long time now. I would love to hear what things you would add to this, whether there is anything I have written that you have either found helpful or would change, and also any stories you have of where the words someone has spoken to you have had a really big impact on your life (whether good or bad). Please write a comment/email me using the contact form of this blog! 🙂


  1. Hello my dear! I think this may be the “Look!” article you were referring to? :’) https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/06/happily-ever-after/372573/ I read it too some time back and also thought it was absolutely wonderful! x

    And also just to share something a friend once told me —
    It’s better to use “I” statements instead of “You” statements because the former entails approachability, while the latter comes with quite an accusatory tone. E.g. “I feel upset when you ___.” vs. “You upset me when you ___.” Just a simple tweak in our speech that could go a long way in making/ breaking relationships with friends/ partners. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

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