Our brain processes language in mysterious ways. Learning the quirks of the brain can help you master yourself and help others, so here are the some tips I’ve picked up in my years of studying psychology and hypnosis:

  • Be concise. The brain doesn’t like a lot of little words. For instance, if you want to give your brain the suggestion that it should relax your body, it would be better to close your eyes and think to yourself, “Relaxing deeper and deeper,” rather than say to yourself, “I am now relaxing all of my muscles.” The brain wants you to get to the point and skip all the extraneous words.
  • Use “ing” words. The brain seems to respond betterOur brain processes language in mysterious ways to words that end in “ing” over declarative sentences (e.g. “Relaxing . . .”).
  • Use permissive words. The brain prefers “permissive” words to direct instructions. Therefore, “I’ll allow myself a few minutes of rest” is far more restful than the stressful “I’ve got to rest right now.”
  • Be positive. The brain isn’t fond of negativity, and so tends to discard words and parts of words like “don’t,” “not,” “un,” “never,” “no,” and so on. This leads to interesting results: If you’re rushing out of the house in the morning and you tell yourself “Don’t forget the book,” your brain is quite likely to deliver the instruction “Forget the book.” If you think of a task as being “no problem,” the brain drops the “no” and focuses on the “problem.” “How was your day?” “Not bad.” Saying this fails to generate much happiness.
  • Use labels with caution. The brain loves labels. If you put a label anywhere in a sentence, the brain latches onto it and stores it as the essential part of the message. This can lead to serious distortions from the original intent. For example, saying to a child, “You spoke in a very mean way to your sister” will be stored as “You are mean.” This is because “mean” was the only label in the sentence, and it is now chosen to concisely summarize the message in the brain. All the other information in the sentence just disappears.

The Implications for Family Communication

As a parent, these tips can be very useful. For instance, if you would like your children to lower their voices, you’ll be more effective with the “ing” strategy, saying something like “Speaking quietly, please,” rather than “Can you guys please lower your voices?” Remember, too, that the brain responds better to brief instructions. “Walking slowly” is better than “Hey guys, please slow down and stop running.” “Walking slowly” is also better than the directive “Slow down.”

Positive constructs are more effective than negative ones, which is especially important when talking to kids. Try saying “Remember your lunch!” instead of “Don’t forget your lunch!”

Similarly, replace phrases like “not bad,” “no problem,” and “not an issue” with phrases like “very good,” “my pleasure,” “glad to help,” and so on. These words give you and your listener a much stronger dose of positive energy.Positive constructs are more effective than negative ones

Permissive words can be used to good advantage, too. For instance, suppose a child says, “The homework will be too hard!” You might be inclined to say something like “You’ll see—it will be easy.” However, you’ll probably get better results by saying something like “Allow yourself to be surprised—maybe it will be easy!” The permissive language (“allow,” “surprised,” “maybe”) helps the brain absorb information, whereas the declarative version (“you will see,” “it will be easy”) invites resistance and argument.

As for the constructive use of labels, a helpful family rule is “Never use a negative label in any sentence.” Instead of saying “You were very mean to your sister,” switch to “You need to be sensitive to your sister’s feelings.” The label “sensitive” will stick like glue to your child’s brain, helping him to actually become more sensitive in the future.

Advice from Our Sages

Choosing words wisely is a longstanding tradition in Judaism. Every word we speak is seen to have powerful effects on ourselves, our loved ones, our community, and even our universe! As our sages advise, “Think about it before you say it.” The more we know about how words are processed and received, the more effective we can be with choosing those that will achieve our goals.