As a mediator, I have learned to choose my words carefully. The way I phrase something will make all the difference in the world between gaining someone’s trust and angering them.

The importance of wording is brought home by Kenneth Cloke in his book, The Dance of Opposites (Goodmedia Press, 2013). His first chapter entitled “The Language of Conflict” discusses how the words we choose matter and will make the difference between resolving a conflict and escalating it. In simple terms he explains that usually when we are in a dispute, we will structure our sentences using a pronoun, a verb and then an accusation (for example; “You are lazy”.)  (Id. at 23.) What we do not realize is that this sentence structure, especially with the accusation at the end, will evoke the “fight or flight” response in the listener. As a result, the listener will respond with her own sentence structure of either denial, defense and/or counterattack. That is, “I don’t know what you’re talking about” (Denial) or “No, I am not.” (Defense); or “You’re uptight/ bossy” (Counter-Attack). (Id. at 27.)

The pronoun we use will make a big difference. Using the pronoun “They” indicates stereo typing and prejudice ( “They are irresponsible”) while the pronoun “He” or “She” indicates demonization or victimization leading to blame and shame or disempowerment (“She is lazy”). (And as just noted, “You” is accusatory evoking denial, defense and counter attack.) As one may suspect, the pronoun “It” signals objectivity and problem solving (“It is a lot of work to handle for one person.”) while the pronoun “We” should be every negotiator’s favorite as it signals partnership and collaboration resulting in consensus and ownership. (”We have not been clear about how to divide up the work.”) (Id. at 25.)

Through the simple use of the pronouns “They”, “You”, and/or “He/She”, we will unwittingly communicate blame (“It’s your fault”); shame (“You are no good”); self-defense (“Don’t punish me- punish him”); pain (“You hurt my feelings”); or fear (“I don’t respect you”). (Id. at 26.)

To avoid this, Mr. Cloke reminds the reader of the adages in Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury to “separate the person from the problem” and to be “hard on the problem and soft on the person.” (Id. at 26.).

To accomplish this, Mr. Cloke suggests using the pronouns “It” or “I” or “We” which are not accusatory and to convert one’s statements into questions. Rather than saying “Don’t do that!” reframe your thought by stating,”It would feel much more respectful to me if you would …..” (Id. at 27.) Rather than asking someone to “Stop yelling at me”, note that “I see that you care very much about this. Why is that?” (Id.)

No doubt you have heard someone say “You always….” Or “You never…” Again, this is accusatory which will evoke a response of denial, defense and counter-attack. To make the same point but without accusing, convert your accusation into a question, Rather than saying “You never help out”, ask, “Why didn’t you help out when I asked?” Or, start the sentence using “I”, “It” or “We“, e.g. “I could have really used your help” or “It would have been easier if we both had pitched in.” or “We could have accomplished it a lot quicker by working together.” (Id. at 28-29.)

Another way to reframe is to use positive synonyms for negative terms. For example, rather than say someone is “micro-managing”, say that they are “detailed”. Use the term “discuss” instead of “gossip” or the term “planning” rather than “conspiring”. Rather than stating that someone is “evil”, use the term “harmful” or if someone is “angry”, substitute “upset”. (Id. at 30.)

As Mr. Cloke explains, the goal is to stop the never ending circle of conflict communication and rather than have it spiral downward into a never ending morass of words, have it spiral upward towards a resolution:

…conflict is a relationship, and …the language of demonization and victimization can be reversed by each side describing the problem in a way that accepts responsibility for whatever is not working in their relationship. Beneath their selection of language to describe their conflict was an assumption that they were in a power contest with an opponent who is solely responsible for creating and fixing the problem. A different calculation occurs when we move from the language of power to that of rights, to that of interests where responsibility for the problem and its solution are shared. (Id. at 31.)

… Just something to think about.

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By Phyllis G. Pollack

Phyllis G. Pollack is a full time neutral in Los Angeles where, as President of PGP Mediation, she focuses on business, real estate, contract and “lemon law” disputes. She may be reached at Phone: 213-630-8810 / / Website: