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February 2, 2016


Bruce Murray

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Don't! I've been fixated on this word for a couple months now. It started when I wrote a blog about the self-promotion that is so necessary in this age when so many of us are small-time entrepreneurs and contract workers. Typical of what I read was, "Don't brag! You'll look like a jerk!" and, "Don't talk about yourself. No one wants to hear about how great you are."

So how do I self-promote? I thought I found the answer in the form of a book entitled, "Humblebrag," but the first article I read about the book is titled, "If You're Going to Brag, Don't Humblebrag."

My fixation grew when my son, his wife, and my first grandson moved from Australia to our home in the States. Perhaps a dozen times a day, one of us says, "Don't [fill-in the blank]!" to the three-year-old.

We all know what don't means, but there are so many degrees of expression that even sign language has "… dozens of ways" to express it. To my grandson, the don'ts range from the supportive, "Don't forget your jacket. It's cold outside" to a casual, "Don't play too close to the fire."

His parents do a great job and all of our don'ts come with lovingly good intentions, but some are angry reactions such as, "Don't punch your baby cousin. What's the matter with you?!?" My interest is this strongest use of the word, where it is often the first word spoken, expressed loudly and with emphasis, as in "Don't tell me what to do!"

Watching the boy's reactions to our don'ts is illuminating. Often, he acts as though he didn't hear it. Sometimes he exhibits a blank face that silently screams, "Me? I'm not doing anything wrong!" or a squint-eyed look of cautious scrutiny that whispers, "Uh oh, am I headed for trouble here?" At other times, he'll make sure that we see defiance in his face as he alters his behavior as little as possible. Sure enough, sometimes he simply conforms.

Curiously, I observe that we adults react much the same – with the same looks of denial and disdain, but perhaps with a little more of the cautious scrutiny.

In both giving and receiving don'ts, recognize that we are not thinking but merely reacting. And the sharp command is only likely to trigger an emotionally charged reaction from the other. Next thing we know, we're in an escalating cycle in which no one is thinking; we're just verbally jousting. Whenever possible, avoid pejorative don't commands because they are not conversation starters but conversation killers.

Express your concerns and issue advice with expressions that invite explanation, questioning or feedback. Instead of telling my grandson to not play too close to the fire, I could simply ask him what might happen if he continues to do so, and then we could project that future.

Wanting to react to the angst associated with don'ts, Lao Tzu asks you to pause… and ask yourself, "Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear?" Take a breath. Now be mindful. "Consider what the most intelligent, compassionate response might be. What can we do that will help our relationship, teach, build a better team or partnership, make the situation better, calm everyone down, including ourselves?"

In being mindful, recognize that many don't statements are issued and received in urgent circumstances. If you are issuing one, ask for immediate help and add that you will explain and answer questions when the urgency passes.

If you are on the receiving end and, even after a pause to let the mud settle, you feel mistreated and vengeful, be mindful of Wayne Dyer's words, "How people treat you is their karma; how you react is yours." Bite your tongue and say, "I sense your urgency and [will/cannot] comply. I trust that we can discuss this later, okay?"… and walk away.

Finally, with some don'ts, you may agree with the thought, just not appreciate how it was delivered. Acknowledge the good advice and ask for some time to discuss it more thoroughly. If this person often speaks to you this way, bring it to their attention later, and mention how demoralized it leaves you feeling.

If you disagree with the thought and can't dispel the anger it evokes, then ask to talk about it later after you calm down. Once you regain your composure, politely say that you respect their good intentions but disagree. With a calm, positive tone, explain your reasoning.

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2 comments on “Don't!”

  1. Interesting piece here. During my teenage years (and a little beyond if I have to be completely honest), I interpreted the word "don't" as "go on...try!!" Fortunately we get a little wiser as we grow older.

    I've also watched with interest what happens when grownups tell one another 'don't do this'... One don't that seems to push particularly sensitive buttons is "don't talk to me like that". Often times the argument descends into a war of words about how one person talked to the other - the original problem completely forgotten!

    1. Thanks for the reply, Yolande. I share your reaction. Many don'ts are viewed as "dares" and invoke reactions of, "Oh yeah? Just wait and watch!" What's likely to follow is, of course, the war of words (and let's hope not a war of actions). In other words, the don't leads to the exact opposite reaction of what the issuer wanted.
      When they are less emotional, don'ts are met with our older/wiser selves responding with, "okay, thanks for the advice." Even then, however, the negativity can still dampen our enthusiasm about any topic.

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