“No problem.” “No worries.” That’s the way we often respond when people thank us.

What’s wrong with this?

What’s wrong is that the unconscious does not recognize a negative. Try this experiment: Don’t think of a pink giraffe. Immediately, what do you think of? A pink giraffe, of course! The unconscious does not recognize a negative, which in this case is the word “don’t.” You process the statement as Think of a pink giraffe.

When someone I thank responds “No problem” or “No worries,” the words “problem” and “worries” jump out at me. I sense I’ve been viewed as mildly annoying, at best. Yet if my “Thank you” elicits a “You’re welcome” or “My pleasure,” I’m likely to feel good about our pleasant exchange.

So why is a marriage maven writing about pink giraffes and seemingly innocuous phrases? And what does this have to do with Jewish teachings?

These currently popular phrases, “No problem” and “No worries,” are heard subconsciously as negative messages. When spouses unknowingly communicate with each other less than positively, they create distance in their relationship.

The Rebbe understood the subtle power of words. Rather than saying something was “bad,” he would often say it was “the opposite of good.”1 This roundabout way of talking, which is commonly done when speaking Hebrew, Yiddish and other languages, is based on the Talmudic teaching that “one should always speak in euphemistic [lit. ‘clean’] terms.”2

“Clean communication” uses words that bring forth positive associations, even when the speaker is referring to something about which he or she is unhappy.

How to Communicate Positively

In the best marriages, partners communicate positively. This is not as simple as it might seem. A wife might intend to express gratitude by telling her husband, “I appreciate you for not bothering me when I wanted to read quietly last night.” A more positive message would be, “I appreciate you for respecting my wish to read quietly last night.”

The first of the above two sentences contains a metaphorical pink giraffe. The husband is going to hear, loud and clear, the word “bothering.” The message left swimming in his subconscious could well be: “I’m a bother; she finds me annoying.” His wife’s attempt to compliment him backfired because it contained a subliminal negative component. In fact, her message may actually result in him bothering her more often, because we are more likely to repeat behaviors for which we are given attention, even negative attention.

The second sentence, “I appreciate you for respecting my wish to read quietly last night,” is totally positive. The listening husband (not an oxymoron!) hears, “I’m respectful and considerate. She likes this about me.” This kind of positive attention will probably result in other considerate behaviors on his part, and consequently more connection and harmony in the couple’s relationship.

Turn a Complaint into a Request

Positive communicators have learned how to turn a complaint into a request. Instead of saying what they do not want their partner to do, they say what they want.

A wife who resents having to plan every date night might feel tempted to blurt out to her husband, “Why do I always have to be the one who has to come up with ideas for our dates?” Feeling criticized, the husband might react by begrudgingly planning a lackluster date.

What if the wife would say instead, “I’d love it if you would plan some of our dates”? The husband would hear the word “love,” and would probably want to please her by honoring her request in a heartfelt way.

By reframing a complaint into a request, the listener is more likely to hear our message as constructive—a communication that fosters connection.

Follow a Complaint with a Request

Since we’re human, we’re all likely to complain now and then, to say what we don’t want or don’t like. A husband might tell his wife, “I didn’t like it when you told our friends about my brother’s medical condition. I wasn’t ready to share this.” He can soften his rebuke by adding a request, such as “I would appreciate it if from now on you’ll keep this private until I’m ready to share it with others.” His wife hears “appreciate,” and will probably respond warmly by saying she will certainly honor his wish.

And when he then thanks her, she’ll say, “You’re welcome!”

Cleaning up Your Communication

Less Helpful: Complaining Better: Asking Kindly for What You Want
“You don’t help me enough with the kids.” “I’d appreciate it very much if you would be willing to watch the kids Tuesday evenings so I can go to a class I’m interested in.”
“You don’t show me enough affection.” “How about a hug?” (said warmly with a smile). Or, “I’d like a good morning hug and kiss today.” Or surprise him or her with a hug.
“You don’t help enough in the kitchen.” “I’d appreciate it if you’d clear the dishes from the table.”
“I don’t like having to do all the housecleaning.” (This is okay if you follow up with a request.) “I’d like to get more help cleaning the house. Might you be willing to take on a task or two?” (Give examples.) “If not, how about we hire a cleaning service?”