What is Not Speaking?

We have been conditioned to speak in deficit by describing what is missing, what is excluded, what’s wrong, what is not there.  We often describe things, good or bad, in terms of what the experiences are not.  Pay attention to how your friends and colleagues talk.  You will find that many speak a language of exclusion, a language about “what is not,” instead of “what is,” or “what can be.”  For example, this morning I ran into an old friend and asked him how he was feeling.  He answered, “No complaints.”  Now what does that mean?  Does that mean he has a list of complaints taped on his bedroom wall that he reads every morning to see if he has anything to complain about?

You give an idea to your supervisor at work and you hear, “Not bad.”  Does that mean every other idea you offered was bad?  You suggest that you implement a new plan or idea and you hear, “It won’t hurt.”  Does that mean that everything else you implemented did hurt?  You want to do something and you hear “I don’t have a problem with it,” or “It certainly wouldn’t be out of the question to do that.”

How many times have you heard a friend say to you something like “Why don’t we get together on Monday?” or “Why don’t we get together for lunch?”  What’s interesting is that when someone asks another person “Why don’t we,” the receiver frequently resists with some type of a “no.”  When someone says “Why don’t we?” our first unconscious impulse is to begin to think of reasons why not to get together.  The phraseology creates ambivalence.  However, if you were to change the question to “How about getting together on Monday?” or “Let’s get together on Monday?” the ambivalence disappears.

The weather person comes on TV in the morning.  You notice that she is describing weather in terms of what it is not.  She says, “Well, today won’t be cloudy, and when we look at the air quality, there won’t be too much of a problem.  If we look at the pollen count, there is not going to be too much pollen in the air.  All in all, it won’t be a bad day.”  She describes a beautiful day in terms of there not being a problem, not being too hard on your eyes, not being too hard on your breathing, not being too threatening of your allergies.  The weather person could say instead, “It’s going to be a beautiful day.  The air will be clear.  You’ll breathe easy.  The sun will be out for you to enjoy.”  However, she positions the nature of the beautiful day in terms of what it is not.

After the weather person, the traffic person comes on.  He describes the morning commute as, “Well, the traffic on Interstate 90 won’t be too much of a problem today.  At the toll bridge, there is not too much of a backup.  The traffic reporter could say, “The traffic is smooth.  You’ll have an easy commute today.  The cars are moving nicely through the toll bridge.”  But he talks about good news in terms of what it is not.  Not too much of a problem, not much of a backup, not too large of an irritant.

It is the same with the national news.  You get the usual dose of bad national news (murders, fires, car accidents, layoffs, and so on), and then the good news is usually positioned in terms of what’s missing.  Instead of new such as “The Dow Jones Index is up 110%,” we get “The Dow Jones is up 110% despite inflation worries.”  If you get a steady diet of this every day for years, it is very difficult to have a positive attitude or even a good feeling about life.

Your language influences your feelings, which also influence your thoughts.  And our thoughts have a kind of a possessive quality which stays, gets stuck, and then gradually becomes habitual without our noticing it.  If you brush your teeth every morning, you hardly notice how you’re doing it.  It just goes by itself.  Our thought does the same thing, and so do our feelings.

Suppose you go to Disneyland with your family and you have a wonderful time.  I come up and ask you, “How did you like Disneyland?”  If your response is, “Not bad,” that description of what is not will usually come across in a cool monotone barren of excitement or enthusiasm.  But what if you say, “Great!”?  You’ll notice that there is a difference in volume, in affect, in intonation – in the whole feeling associated with the word “great.”  Your volume goes up.  Your mouth gets more relaxed.  Your thoughts and feelings are quite different when you talk about what’s there as opposed to what’s missing.

Often, we find ourselves at a loss for words when we try to express our sympathy to a friend who has lost a loved one.  Many of us say things like, “I really don’t have the words to express my sorrow,” or “I don’t know what to say.”  Suppose you change this to “It’s so difficult for me to find a way to express my sorrow,” or “It’s so difficult for me to find the words that would adequately express my deep sorrow for what you are going through.”  By rephrasing into more positive terms, it does more good for you … and the other person.

By changing your language and speaking patterns to about “what’s there” in a positive way – you guarantee a feeling of optimism and real output in performance.  The Ritz Carlton is one of the most storied hotel chains in the world.  One of the most significant factors for their success is the language of the employees.  They are trained to say, “It’s a pleasure,” instead of saying something like, “No problem,” whenever you thank them for doing a service or favor.  This training in positive language, “It’s a pleasure,” has helped make them into optimistic employees, which, in turn, creates a pleasant hotel atmosphere.

It’s the same with professional golf caddies.  Rick Reilly in his book Who’s Your Caddy? writes about his experience as a caddy for Tom Lehman.  Lehman had an uphill 12-footer.  Reilly said, “Don’t be short.”  There was an awful hush over the foursome.  He broke the monster caddy rule: Never speak in the negative sense.  He discovered that in the high stakes game of professional golf you never put a negative thought into a golfer’s head.  There can only be positive thoughts.  Lehman missed the putt by four feet and fired Reilly after the round.  Later the other caddies explained to Reilly to learn how to only speak with positives.  He should have said “It’s a little against the grain up there” or “It looks uphill” or “A firm putt should do it.”

As you read this article you probably thought, “I never would have thought of this,” or “Not a bad insight.”  Rephrase your thought to “This is the first time I thought of that.”  Or, “That’s an exciting insight that could explain a lot.”  Notice how rephrasing it from “what is not” to “what is” affects your perception of the information.  You now feel interest, curiosity, surprise and even fascination.  You can feel your consciousness expand.


  1. I’ve been absent for a while, but now I remember why I used to love this blog. Thanks, I’ll try and check back more often. How frequently you update your site?

  2. Michael, thank you for your fascinated and well illustrated article on how to walk and talk on the sunny side. The use of negative expressions has crept so subtly into our speech and thought patterns, that we unwittingly have turned into a nation of whiners and complainers. Perhaps the subtle reason it goes unnoticed is that at some level, misery loves company.

    It strikes me that your article would be an excellent platform for a book! Or if you can point us to other reading and resources to explore this further, that would be wonderful!

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