when words are sentences

Grammatically speaking, a sentence may consist of a single word:




I separated those into separate lines to avoid the mental image that would come of combining them.  Each of these sentences contains a verb, which we see, and an “invisible” (understood) subject – the audience to whom we are talking.

You’re fascinated, I’m sure.  But that isn’t what I mean to talk about here.  (And aren’t you glad?)







These words are also sentences.  They are not grammatical sentences, but rather sentences handed down in the courtrooms of the heart.  They are issued by a judge to a party presumed guilty, scarlet letters with which we intentionally – or unintentionally – brand people.  Sometimes for life.

Unfortunately, we use words as sentences in this way often.  It’s easy to construct their delivery.

“Why are you so lazy?”

“You are the most selfish person I know.”

“You’re such a liar!”

In short, labels like these paint people in terms of who they are and not merely what they did.  They are sweeping.  Total.  Overwhelming.

What’s more, they are ultimately counter-productive.  When you tell someone that they are “lazy,” what is your goal?  Isn’t it to motivate them to be more industrious?  Likewise, when we call someone a “liar,” isn’t our goal to somehow get them to tell the truth?  But when we say that someone is lazy or a liar, we are actually locking them to the behavior, not encouraging them to change.  Labels create expected behavior.

A fish swims.  And so, if I believe I am a fish, I am expected to swim.

A liar lies.  If I believe I am a liar, then I expect myself to lie.  After all, others do.

Other words that can be sentences include extremes:

“You always do this to me.”

“You never listen.”

Again, if I believe that I always do something, I will keep doing it.  If I believe that I never do it, I have no reason to start doing it now.

So how do we turn these “sentences” into constructive communication?

Start by thinking and speaking  in terms of  the specific behavior happening right now, not in sweeping references to character or as patterns.

“You got an F in Biology”  -not-  “You’re lazy.”

“I asked you to take the trash to the street and you didn’t”   -not-   “You never listen to me.”

“You left the stove on”  -not-    “You have no common sense.”

“You left your socks on the bathroom floor”   -not-   “You are a slob” or “Why do I always have to pick up after you!”

If I choose to speak in these terms, I am separating the behavior from the person. People do not feel able to change or correct something they are, as created by our labels. However, they most often do feel able to address and correct one thing they did.

Sometimes we play both the judge and the convicted, passing down these “sentences” on ourselves:

“I am so stupid.”

“I’m the worst mother ever.”

“I’m a loser.”

The effect is the same. The solution, likewise, is the same: to think and speak in terms of specific behaviors I would like to change, not in character judgments upon myself.

This is just one effective tool among many for improving communication and avoiding conflict in relationships (or in allowing ourselves to break self-defeating patterns in our own life).  Much of my book, “The Best Advice So Far,” is devoted to other such tools.

As I said above, throwing out words as sentences upon people is easy.  Rethinking how we say things then is, by comparison, more difficult.  But, as Thomas Jefferson said, “Anything worth having is worth fighting for.”

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