Say This – Not That

Objective of the talk Say This, Not That: A Foolproof Guide to Effective Interpersonal Communication by Carl Alasko Ph.D.

  • Excellent book on providing concrete examples of how to improve communication skills.
  • Oversimplified view of human beings – have two buttons
    • “I am valued” button – gets triggered by – “I am proud of you.” “Great job”
    • “I am not valued” button – get triggered by – “How many times have I told you…” “If only you had…”
    • We are human beings and when someone triggers our “I am not valued” button our instinctive response is to say something that triggers there “I am not valued” button. This is called “escalation” and some people do it over and over again.
    • We never see those buttons but we are certainly skilled at triggering those buttons.

Author’s Introduction – What psychologists hear on a regular basis.

  • “Well, what should I say?” he asks. “It’s useless trying to talk to him,” she complains. “If I try to say anything, we end up in a fight!” he grumbles. Saying the right words is not easy. Sometimes it seems impossible. That’s why I wrote this guide to straight talk—to help you say the right words in the right way at the right time.”
  • “Some twenty years ago, for instance, when a couple like Kathy and Robb would arrive for their therapy session in a visibly agitated state and Kathy’s first words would be an angry, “Robb, why did you forget to call me? Can’t you remember anything?” I would have asked her a clinically neutral question such as, “Kathy, how do you imagine Robb feels when you say that?”
  • “Since then, I’ve learned that actually, in that moment, Kathy doesn’t give a hoot about how Robb feels. She’s frustrated and angry, her pulse rate is elevated, her blood vessels have constricted, she’s ready for a fight and has no desire for resolution.”
  • “I tell her to say this: “‘I’m upset that you didn’t call me.’ Nothing more. Just that.” Then I’ll discuss with both of them why those few simple words—nothing more—make a whole lot of sense.”

THREE FACTORS that are vital to speaking effectively with others:

  • First, communication involves strategy—that is, thoughtful planning about the best way to approach an issue. This book will help you develop a strategically effective plan for saying the right words at the right time.
  • Second, effective communication involves more than just words. This book provides specific suggestions about the most effective body language, gestures and even (at times) silence to get your ideas across and precisely communicate what you want, feel or need in a wide variety of circumstances.
  • Third, your physical body and range of emotions influence how you talk and the words you actually say. Even a moderate amount of physical excitement can overwhelm your ability to choose the right phrase or sentence. Learning how to step back and think calmly before responding in challenging situations can make all the difference.


  • Rule one Decide in advance what you want to accomplish. Say only what you need to say; nothing more. Don’t ask questions that don’t have an actual answer. Do not use blame: no criticism, accusation, punishment or humiliation. Always be ready to stop when things get too heated.
    • The few seconds that you take to examine your intention before you speak may be the most valuable few seconds of your entire day.
  • RULE TWO Say only what you need to say—nothing more.
  • RULE THREE Don’t ask questions that don’t have an actual answer.
    • “Why don’t you pay more attention when I talk to you?” Implied criticism: You’re too immature to actually listen.
  • RULE FOUR Do not use blame: No criticism, accusation, punishment or humiliation.
  • RULE FIVE Always be ready to stop when things get too heated.



  • GUIDELINE ONE Maintain positive or neutral nonverbal gestures or expressions.
  • GUIDELINE TWO Don’t ask invasive, demanding or judgmental questions.
  • GUIDELINE THREE Don’t be vague about your intentions; explicitly and strategically state your needs.
  • GUIDELINE FOUR Follow your instincts, and always be ready to leave if things get too uncomfortable.

WHAT’S A REACTIVE RESPONSE? When something triggers the fight/flight syndrome hardwired into our nervous systems. When we feel physically or emotionally threatened, stress shoots adrenaline into our blood, and we’re ready for action, not for thinking.

  • DON’T SAY THIS: “I just wanted to tell you that you’re really cute. Do you want to go out?”
  • SAY THIS: “Excuse me if I’m interrupting, but I’ve noticed you here a few times and I wonder if you’ve got time to have coffee with me.” (Sending the right message: I’m courteous and honest in my approach.)
  • KEEP IN MIND THOSE OLD WORDS OF WISDOM: Nothing ventured, nothing gained. If you don’t take risks, you won’t move ahead.

Long Term relationships

  • He’s Late and Doesn’t Care THE SITUATION: You’re meeting your sweetheart, he shows up twenty minutes late and he’s only vaguely apologetic.
  • DON’T SAY THIS (SARCASTICALLY): “Well, I’m glad you finally made it.”
  • BUT DO SAY SOMETHING: Unless you truly aren’t bothered by someone being late (a slippery slope that could encourage irresponsibility), don’t pretend that nothing is bothering you.

In this section several more situations were identified and specific real life examples were discussed.

  • Your significant other gets drunk. When you confront her she says that it’s none of your business.
    • Suggestion express your love and a desire for relationship but also your honest concerns.
    • If the significant other doesn’t care about your feelings you might be better ending the relationship
  • You are not married. Your significant other quits their job and continually borrows money from you to help their family.
    • Suggestion express love and a desire for relationship but also your honest concerns.
    • In this case the Significant other listened got a job and the relationship worked out.

Parent and Children

  • How Many Times Have I Told You
    • THE SITUATION: Your twelve-year-old son comes home from school, drops his backpack near the door and starts to play a video game.
    • DON’T SAY THIS (ANGRILY): “I’ve told you a thousand times to put your stuff away before using the computer! Why are you so stubborn [lazy, difficult, stupid]?” (Sending the wrong message: I must use anger to control your behavior because
    • IT WON’T HELP: Criticizing loudly and angrily may provoke a Reactive Response. Or your son might bury his reaction until it surfaces later in lack of cooperation. Neither helps establish discipline.
    • SAY THIS (CALMLY): “Justin, please follow the rules about putting your stuff away before doing anything else.” (Sending the right message: He has to follow the rules.)


  • She’s Just Too Busy to Call Back
    • THE SITUATION: You’ve left three messages for Liz and she hasn’t called back. Finally, on your fourth attempt, you reach her.
    • DON’T SAY THIS: “Well, Liz, you’re obviously too busy to return my calls!” (Sending the wrong message: I will punish you for disappointing me.)
    • SAY THIS (IN A NEUTRAL TONE OF VOICE): “Hi, Liz. Glad to reach you. I can guess you’ve been busy.” (Sending the right message: I tolerate frustration and resist judgments.)


  • I’m Perfect—Why Aren’t You?
  • THE SITUATION: You start work early and stay late to get your assignments done before deadline—and your coworkers aren’t pulling their weight.
  • DON’T SAY THIS: “You know, if everyone did their job around here, some of us (me!) could have some time off.” (Sending the wrong message: I’m so much better than everyone else.)
  • HUGE MISTAKE: Talk about losing friends and allies! You’re not only criticizing other people’s performance, you’re accusing them of having a weak work ethic. Your accusation will alienate just about everyone including your boss, and you’ll be judged to be an inadequate team player.
  • SAY THIS (TO YOURSELF): “People can only do the best they can in any given moment. We all need to lead balanced lives. I must keep in mind my long-term goals and not be too extreme.” (Sending the right message: I practice self-awareness and moderation.)

PLEASE, STOP! A Proven Method to Stop Escalating Arguments

  • Suppose that anger does break through, boundaries collapse and an argument erupts that escalates into name-calling and threats. What then? In such cases you need an emergency method for instantly stopping the conflict before it escalates even further.
  • Either party can ask the other person to “Please, stop!” at any time, for any reason, without any need to justify their demand. The other person must immediately stop talking and also refrain from making threatening sounds or gestures.
    • STEP ONE: Choose a time when both of you are sufficiently rested (for instance, in the morning when you’re fresh, rather than right before going to sleep). Turn off all media and phones. The process requires fifteen to twenty minutes.
    • STEP TWO:  One person takes two minutes to state the problem from his or her point of view. Use a timer to avoid watching the clock. (You can agree to increase the time to three or four minutes if that works better.) The other person listens respectfully, without interrupting. When the timer rings, the other person takes his or her turn. Alternate this process for ten to twelve minutes.
    • STEP THREE: If the two people are sufficiently in control of their emotions (neither actively involved in a Reactive Response), they then use the remaining minutes to decide on a reasonable compromise. If, however, either party is too agitated to reach an agreement, they separate, and pledge to repeat the process within a day or so.
    • STEP FOUR: Write down whatever agreement you make. Also write down whatever progress each of you has made toward understanding the other’s position, in order to avoid later disputes over what was said or agreed to.
    • Thich Nhat Hanh had similar recommendation
      • Wait until you are calm.
      • Set at time and place
      • Articulate your needs and concerns.
      • Try to see where you may have been at fault and acknowledge
      • Be willing to listen to the other side. Go in with the goal of improving relationships not winning.

Family Meetings

    • Encourages children involvement in the families decision and a sense of responsibility. The difficult decisions are often sheltered from the children.
    • One friend implemented with teen age children and it worked.
    • STEP ONE: Prior to the first meeting and each one that follows, parents place a notebook in a common area in which anyone can write (or have a parent write) an agenda item. Agenda items can be anything a family member wants. Obviously,
    • STEP TWO: The parents choose a relatively unhurried time when everyone will be present. Sunday mornings or early afternoons often work best. A well-structured meeting requires approximately thirty to forty-five minutes.
    • STEP THREE: At the first meeting, a parent leads the family in choosing a chairperson and in deciding how often they’ll rotate the position to a new family member.
    • STEP FOUR: As the meeting starts, the chairperson calls on every family member to give a simple compliment to each person present. Initially this may be difficult, but after some practice it can become a precious part of
    • STEP FIVE: Each person who’s written an issue in the notebook begins discussing it, taking about a minute to present the problem, followed by a statement of what he or she wants to see happen.
    • STEP SIX: The chairperson asks everyone to volunteer an idea or solution. If the family reaches a solution or compromise, it’s recorded in the notebook. If there’s no voluntary resolution, then the family votes on what should happen. Serious items requiring ongoing attention (such as disrespectful language, violence, vandalism, bad grades, alcohol use, etc.) are carried over for follow-up in future meetings.
    • HERE’S THE CONTROVERSIAL PART: Every family member has an equal vote.
    • The Law of Personal Limitations: How Understanding Personal Limitations Can Affect Everything You Think, Say and Do
  • Summary – Key points
    • When you feel wounded by another make sure you have an effective strategy in communicating your needs.
    • Don’t communicate when you are angry, if at all possible.
    • Observe what words do trigger reactive responses from others.
    • Say This, Not That: A Foolproof Guide to Effective Interpersonal Communication by Carl Alasko Ph.D.
      • Wide variety of situations.
  • Class Discussion – comment by John Howard
    • Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D. began what is a movement in the US
      in NVC, Non Violent Communication. His book is Nonviolent Communication
      A Language of Life published by Puddle Dancer Press.There are a number of groups in Houston that have regular practice
      groups in this skill. It involves, to oversimplify, a process of building
      connection between two people using the following process. I strongly
      emphasize that this is an over simplification of a skill that takes study
      and practice to gain proficiency.

      The problem in communicating is often that it is done in a strategic
      manner rather than from a deep understanding of and building of
      connection. The process begins with a:
      -focus on an observation. This is not a judgement or valuation.
      -the observation often leads to aroused feelings. Again these are
      feelings and not a judgement or valuation. The feeling leads to
      -the need from which the feelings springs. We all have needs in our

      The reciprocal is true in the other party. The observation could be
      what the other person said or did- Not an interpretation of what was
      said or done, but the objective utterance or occurrence.

      The other person had some feelings around what they said or did.
      These reflected some need that they had. Often the needs of both
      parties may be close or identical, but the feelings and strategies for
      expressing them conflict. If we stay on the surface with the strategies
      or our reactions rather than probe both our own and the others feelings
      and needs, we will loose connection and exacerbate any difference rather
      than understand what is taking place.

      I strongly recommend looking into NVC with children, with parents, with
      mates as well as in general relationships. Even where there is not a conflict, but
      merely trying to understand and be compassionate toward another-it works.