Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
March 2008 - Volume 08, No. 3
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Like the sorcerers of old, there are some words who's power I honor by carefully avoiding them. For example, a friend has made it a long practice to avoid using the word "hate" - being aware of its strong negative energy. Hate is word that brooks no casual usage, and it's especially appropriate to guide children away from its use.

There are a class of words, called universal quantifiers, that I advise clients to avoid especially in the context of domestic discussion or dispute. These are words such as all, each, every, any, never, none, no one, nothing, nobody, everything, and completely. By their nature they have no referential index, and therefore eliminate any exceptions or alternatives – thus usually distorting the facts or allegations under dispute. Even "You don't tell me you love me anymore" is much more useful (and honest) than "You never tell me you love me."

However, I want to focus here on another word of power – the intensive adverb absolutely.

I call it a 'word of power,' not just because its right use is that of giving full energy to something, but because its misuse can have powerful negative effects on the user.

Let me illustrate with a personal example. A number of years ago, it was incumbent upon me (which means that I was forced) to sign a professional declaration of a certain political correctness. The presumed purpose of this declaration was to give a special (and needed) legal protection to a particular class of citizens. That purpose itself was comfortable to me, and in accord with my own vision of a just and protective society. However, the process involved my own abdication of certain legal rights which also are a hallmark of a just and protective society – the right to confront one's accuser.

I scheduled an appointment with the person who was the agent of this necessity (an attorney) – knowing ahead of time that (1) I surely could not prevail against this "rule," (2) if I did not sign, I would be prevented from a particular professional work that was very important to me, and (3) that my true intended purpose was to make as strong case as possible, and then, of necesity, submit. My contender knew of the first two, but was unaware of the third. And so the meeting took place.

I was well – prepared, and presented my case with what I think was great moral and personal certainty - being especially careful to place my argument within the context his own value system as well. I knew he must be struggling inside (or at least I hoped he was), but in his position of authority, he had no choice but to represent the necessity of my signature.

His first response to my presentation was to ask if I were personally guilty of any offenses covered by the declaration. I felt somewhat insulted, but then realized he felt he had to ask that question first. Secondly he rather haughtily informed me that if I refused to sign, I would forfeit a large chunk of my professional work. (This was his ace in hand.) His knowledge of me was still insufficient to know which way I would go.

After a long 45 minutes of debate and discussion, the time was right to play my own trump card. After a long pause, I said, "OK, I will sign - if you will personally take full and complete responsibility for my personal, professional and moral discomfort in giving you my signature?" (My use of the last "you" here was tactical.) His immediate (way too immediate) response was to say "Absolutely!"

With that response, I knew that I had won everything I really wanted - and also that he went home with a headache that would not dissipate for a long time. (For many years after, he could not even look me in the eye.)

If he had been a wise man, he would have answered "yes" to my question (and it was a honest question). A "no" would have been an even more honorable and honest response, and would have won my honest respect. I had already planned on leaving with some satisfaction. But by his over-answering with "absolutely!", he unwittingly gave away all his moral power (to me) - and I was able to drive home that afternoon with an exultant NIGYSOB (you can figure out the acronym for yourself) dancing through my head. I slept well that night.

Now you can understand why I'll often tell my clients to forego the temptation to say "absolutely" and simply to say "yes." It seems at first a small change - but let me tell you, it can make all the difference in the world.

And so, as always,
pay attention!


I invite my readers to send me suggestions of careless words or phrases that should not be used, or at least used very carefully. Here's an example:
     – "To tell you the truth" – because it semantically assumes that the speaker's other words are not the truth."
     – "I can't stand..." – presents the speaker as completely helpless, a passivity that invites someone (anyone) else to take over. The deserved and appropriate response could contain some surprises.

If/when I have a good list, I'll publish it in this newsletter or on my website.

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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