5 Words You Should Cut Out of Your Relationships Vocabulary

(And a few more you should probably add back in.)

“Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me.”

Oh, if only that were true.

Every painful word spoken to us, especially if by a loved one, but even by another who’s cared about, can be a significant blow to our heart.

It can take years, and possibly even years of therapy, to heal the wounds that ill-spoken words can cause.

And yet, using kind words with one another is something that, too often we expect and desire more than we practice.

Perhaps part pandemic, part present-culture where sarcasm, cynicism, brute force individualism and other negative “isms” seem to rule the day, too often, especially when we’re in conflict, we seem either to believe we can say whatever is inside of us to one another or we hold back and let the steam build.

The Bible speaks to this tension in Luke 6:45 where it says, “A good man, out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man, out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil.  For out of the abundance of the heart, his mouth speaks.”  (NKJV)

And oh, does it ever, right?

Who among us hasn’t slung a few words we wish we could retrieve?

When our words are sharp and cause pain, people may initially be able to toss them aside, but typically not fully until after they’ve had to dress the wounds they cause.

The reality is, the words we choose to use (or withhold) can have a huge impact on our relationships.

So, here are 5 words that professionals counsel we should work to remove from our conversations with others if we want our relationships to continue to grow:

  1. “Nothing”

This one can be used in a variety of ways, but most of the time, not for good.

People who fight dirty often do so because they’re actually afraid of conflict, or don’t want to take ownership of it. Instead of coming out and telling you they’re upset or angry, a person may radiate negative energy that begs you to ask, “What’s wrong?” That’s when the other person tosses the first verbal grenade; launching the battle with the fightin’ word, “nothing.”

Since it seems clear that something is wrong, “nothing” really means, “Of course I’m upset, but I’m afraid of bringing up anything that may start a fight, so I’m going to provoke you into starting one for me.”

So the next time someone with whom you’re in conflict replies with the word, “nothing,” consider countering with the response, “You know, that response is likely only going to lead to an unresolvable argument and I don’t want that.  When you’re ready to talk, I’d like to listen to what’s on your mind.”

  1. “Whatever”

Let’s imagine that the person with whom you’re in conflict has just thrown out the first fighting word, “Nothing,” and instead of countering with, “When you’re ready to talk about it, I’m here to listen,” you say, “I can tell something is wrong.” That’s oftentimes when the other person drops the second fighting word: “Whatever.

“Whatever” can cut to your core—it’s dismissive and minimizes your feelings and concerns.

Next time another person says, “Whatever,” don’t take the bait and escalate the disagreement—which is often what a passive-aggressive person may want. Instead, calmly say, “When you say that to me, I feel like you’re not interested in how I feel or what I have to say—and that makes me feel bad.”

If the person doesn’t offer a sincere apology and begins to work with you about what’s troubling them, you’re best to walk away and let them fume on their own. Otherwise, you’re just agreeing to argue on their terms.

  1. “Always”/”Never”

“You’re never on time.” “I’m always cleaning up after you.” “We always have to do what you want to do, never what I’d like to do.” 

“Always” and “never” are rarely factual. When you use phrases that include “always” or “never,” you’re telling the other person that they can’t ever do something right and that you don’t believe they will ever change. This leads the other person to feel resigned not to even try.

Why should a person help you do something if the words you use translate to them as, “I’d like you to do “x” for me but I know you won’t (or, I know you won’t do it to my standard”). Few people in this situation will adopt an “I’ll-prove-you-wrong” attitude.  Most will simply avoid doing whatever it is you’d like them to do because you’ve previously shown them that “nothing is ever good enough.”

Remove “always” and “never” from your relationship vocabulary. Instead, try “frequently” or “often,” keep the focus on the present situation, and be specific, e.g., “It upset me when you were late today. This seems to be happening pretty frequently lately and it makes me feel like I’m not as important to you as other things.  Can we talk about how we can get back on track together going forward?” 

When someone has let you down, let them know you have faith in them to change and improve.

  1. “You’re just like your… [father/mother/sister, etc.]”

This is another example of something a passive-aggressive person might say to bait you into starting the argument they’d like to have. Instead of, “I feel like you’re nagging me,” they might say, “You’re just like so-and-so.”

Try to take a deep breath and simply respond, “It upsets me when you compare me to _____ (the person you both know suggests a negative connotation).” Don’t escalate the situation—but let them know they’ve crossed a line and hurt you and that you don’t find the comparison helpful toward resolving your conflict with one another.

Try and get the other person to agree that, in the future, if you need an example of someone else’s behavior or attitude in order to better understand what they’re talking about, you’ll ask for one.  Otherwise, ask them to keep their focus on what specifically it is that you’re doing that bothers them.

  1. “You’re too sensitive”/”You take things too personally”

“You’re too sensitive” and “you take things too personally” imply that it’s not OK for you to be sensitive or feel slighted. Unchecked, these are fighting phrases, but they may also be cry-for-help phrases.

You have the right to speak out on the things others say that hurt you, but keep watch for times your counterpart may be trying to say—albeit, perhaps in a less than helpful way­—that they need to tell you something that may upset you but they’re afraid of your reaction.

If this seems to be the case, work to become the type of person who is approachable – even with touchy subjects.

And see if you can help them to find words that better communicate with you what it is they’re really trying to say.

Professional counselors coach their clients to steer clear of these “fightin’ words” and phrases that can turn even minor disagreements among family, friends or counterparts into all-out shouting matches or worse, stone-walling, ghosting or gaslighting.

“So, what’s an alternative?” you may ask.

Because of human frailties and tendencies to sin, the tongue will never be totally “tamed” in this life.

James, in his account, reminds us about the power of the tongue when he writes:  All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and saltwater flow from the same spring? James 3: 7-11 NIV

James also counsels us to 19…be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry 20because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.  26Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is useless.  James 1:19-20; 26 NIV

As believers, we have the power and ability to grow in grace and love; to learn to “take the high road” and practice using our speech to build up and bless others rather than curse and tear them down.

Our tongues have great potential both for good and for harm.

Learning to use our words wisely stems from focusing more upon our inner lives than on the tongue itself; more upon the source than its outflow.

Again, out of an abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.

As we begin to pay closer attention to what it is that’s really going on within our hearts; and what kind of words are flowing out, as a result, we can begin to experience improvement in our communications.

The Proverbs are rich with instruction and guidance for us about the power of our words.

Time (more accurately, our self-imposed word-count limit) does not allow me to write all of them out for you, but here are 10 more than worthy of your time along with links where you can click on each one to read them (they’re refreshing reminders and you’ll be glad you did!):

·         Proverbs 11:9 ·         Proverbs 16: 24
·         Proverbs 11:12 ·         Proverbs 18:4
·         Proverbs 11:17 ·         Proverbs 18:20
·         Proverbs 15:1 ·         Proverbs 20:15
·         Proverbs 15: 4 ·         Proverbs 25:18

The “fightin’ words” talked about earlier will always pale and shrink when put up against the power of the Word of God.

The Bible reminds us that the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Heb. 4:12)

Ephesians 6:17 guides us to, “Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” (NIV) Swords are ultimately meant to kill. But Pastor John Piper says we can use the sword of God’s Word to kill our fears and cravings. For example, he says when he craves some illicit sexual pleasure, the sword-swing he often uses is Matthew 5:8: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

We’ve all nodded our heads in agreement, affirming the truths that we as believers in Christ are chosen, adopted as heirs, and favoredYet we fall back into the trap of measuring ourselves against the world’s standards and acting in the ways of the world instead of believing in and behaving according to the truth about who God says we are.

Perhaps that’s why community is so important (Hebrews 10:25).  Maybe that’s the purpose of the body, the church herself, who takes care of and builds up all of her members.  To consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24) and hold one another accountable to growing up in Him. (Ephesians 4:15)

Are you currently immersed in this type of community? If not, at North Coast Church, we’d like to invite you to “come and see…” (Or maybe even, to come back and see.) Participating in our Weekly Services, connecting with one of our Life Groups (Intro to Life Groups begins next week) or involving yourself in our Single Adult Ministries are all choices you can make that will help you build and grow in the area of your own discipleship, including in the areas of improving your communication and speech in all of your relationships and avoiding the wrong types of fightin’ words.

I’d love to know what you’re thinking or if there are other ways I might be able to help.  If you’d like to practice sharing some non-fightin’ words, please drop me a line at [email protected].  I enjoy staying connected with you and look forward to receiving your messages.

Right here with you,