Is the Word “Don’t” Sabotaging Your Communication?

This is a test. Don’t think of a red apple. Don’t think of a yellow taxi. Don’t think of a cup of coffee. Did you follow my instructions? If you’re human, probably not.

Our brains play tricks on us. They filter out key information. As you just experienced, one way your brain does this is by blinding you to the word “don’t.” 

Earlier this week, I went out for a run. As I was getting changed, my wife called out, “Don’t forget to lock the door.” She was headed out for some exercise herself. What did I do? I forgot to lock the door.

I didn’t mean to forget. I fully intended to lock it. Did I simply forget? Or was another factor at work?

Words matter

In my work with leaders and coaches, I continue to find that word choice matters. The human brain seems to have a blind spot for negatives. When we tell team members, “Don’t slip on the icy sidewalk,” are we really doing them a favor? Their brains may hear, “slip on the icy sidewalk.” Yikes!

We’re all guilty of this. We tell our kids, “Don’t forget your coats.” A coach tells a player, “Don’t drop the pass.” When we’re standing on the 17th green, about to shoot one of our best rounds of golf in months, we mistakenly think to ourselves, “Don’t miss.”

How to eliminate don’t from your vocabulary

With a little intentionality, we can we communicate our messages in a more accurate way. We can bypass the “don’t” blind spot in the brain. Here’s how:

1. Be Alert for Don’t. Listen for it in your conversations. Watch for it in your emails. Build your awareness. By continually picking out each instance in which you encounter the word “don’t,” you’ll develop a greater sensitivity.

2. Make Affirmative Corrections. When you hear or spot the word “don’t,” think about how you would change the message or rearrange the sentence to be more affirmative. When you catch yourself using the word don’t, back track and restate what you really intend to have happen.

By stating the affirmative, rather than using “don’t” you’ll greatly increase the likelihood of getting your desired results.

Here are a few examples:
  • Teacher: “Don’t forget your homework,” becomes “Remember to do your homework.”
  • Parent: “Don’t talk back when I ask you to do something,” becomes “Be respectful when I ask you to do something.”
  • Leader: “Don’t miss that deadline for this month’s new personnel report,” becomes “Be sure to get this month’s new personnel report in on time.”
  • Coach: “If he fakes the shot, don’t jump to block it,” becomes “If he fakes the shot, stand tall and get your hands up so you’ll be ready for his next move.”

3. Choose Your Words Carefully. From now on, be intentional with your word choice. Whether in a text message, email, or just a friendly reminder, use affirmative language. Avoid the blind spot of “don’t.”

Now you know why some messages just didn’t seem to sink in. Communication is all about clarity of the message that is received. By choosing affirmative language you can communicate more clearly and paint a picture of the desired results.

Question: Do you have a funny “don’t” story? I’d love for you to share it in the comments below.


Please note: I encourage reader discussion, however, I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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