When you express thanks to someone and then hear, “No Problem,” how do you feel? Maybe it’s fine with you. Maybe you yourself answer a “thank you” by saying “no problem.” “No problem.” “No worries.” We hear these responses from sales clerks, food servers, and others after we thank them for doing their job. Also from friends, family members, and acquaintances.
What’s wrong with this?
The unconscious does not recognize a negative
What’s wrong is that the unconscious does not recognize a negative. To prove this point, try this experiment: Imagine yourself being told right now, “Don’t think of a pink elephant.” Immediately, what do you think of? A pink elephant, course! The unconscious does not recognize a negative, which in this case is the word, “don’t.” You hear, “Think of a pink elephant.”
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 exchange.
So why is a marriage maven writing about pink elephants and seemingly innocuous phrases?
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. 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. Not everyone knows how to do this well, even when they think they are getting it right. 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 elephant. 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 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 more considerate behaviors on his part, and consequently more connection and harmony in the couple’s relationship.
Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love explains step by step how to use several positive communication skills and avoid using negative ones, such as disguised You-statements…
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 all their dates 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 probably want to please her by honoring her request in a heartfelt way.
To review, a clearly positive message, such as “You’re welcome,” is preferable to phrases that may create distance, such as “no problem” and “no worries,” because the unconscious doesn’t recognize a negative. Similarly, by re-framing a complaint into a request, we give a message that the listener is more likely to hear as constructive; a communication that fosters connection.
Follow a Complaint with a Request
Being 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. 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 surprise him or her with a hug. Or, “I’d like a good morning hug and kiss today.”
“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?”
Note: This article is modified slightly from an earlier version originally published on www.chabad.org.
Marcia Naomi Berger, MSW, LCSW, author of Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted (New World Library, 2014), is a licensed clinical social worker with a private psychotherapy practice in San Rafael, California.
She says, “My special area of interest as a therapist is to help people create relationships that are emotionally and spiritually fulfilling, as well as satisfying physically and materially. I believe in marriage and recognize how societal changes have resulted in new relationship challenges for many people.” She sees individuals, couples, groups, and families in her private practice in San Rafael, CA.
Marcia Naomi Berger is a popular keynote speaker and workshop leader. She offers simple, practical tips for enriching marriage and other relationships by using positive communication skills and helps people reversing unconstructive habits many people learned as children. She offers executive coaching services and corporate trainings including topics such as “How to Deal with a Difficult Person,” “Mindfulness Training,” and “How to Say No.”
Her online class, “The Marriage Meeting Program: a Strength-Based Approach for Successful Relationships,” appears on the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) site.
She has taught continuing education programs at UC Berkeley Extension, and Alliant International University.
A former executive director of Jewish Family and Community Services East Bay and clinical faculty member at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine, she has held senior level positions in child welfare, alcoholism treatment, and psychiatry. Marcia Naomi Berger lives in San Rafael, California with her husband of 27 years.
You can subscribe to her free monthly newsletter featuring articles about marriage, relationships, and communication at www.marriagemeetings.com