Stop saying don't - it's worse than you realise

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24 Nov
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 min read

ave you ever asked someone to not do something and they go and do it? When you use the word 'don't' proceeded by an instruction you are giving a negative command which is harder to follow..

How often do you use the word 'don't'? Every time you do, you are giving a negative instruction. Start speaking in the positive tense now by communicating what to do instead of what not to do.

Thinking about what you want (and not what you don't want) and asking for it really is the key to speaking in the positive tense or just simply ‘speaking in the positive’ as I like to call it.

What is speaking in the positive?

Speaking in the positive is expressing an idea, thinking a thought or asking a question in a way which moves towards what you want instead of away from what you don’t want.

For example “don’t be horrible to me” is asking for what you don’t want (negative tense) and “be nice to me” is what you do want (positive tense). Another is when you want someone to remember something i.e. “don’t forget your keys” (negative tense) and “remember your keys” positive tense.

Negative and Positive Language

Notice the negative use of language on the left and the positive use of language on the right

A do not slip sign compared to take care slippery when wet sign

A sign saying do not open on a fridge compared to Keep closed

Bouldering wall sign at the top saying no not climb on top of the boulder

This sign was at the top of a climbing wall.  The interesting thing about it is that as soon as I showed my friend, she straight away wanted to go and have a look as curiosity set in.  The problem is that the sentence is implying that it is possible to climb on top of the boulder and puts the very idea into your head.  It is then up to the person's will power to not do the action which is quite often weak.  A better way to write this sign would be to say, “Climbing stops here, stay on this side of the tape”.

Girl sat on the grass with a keep off the grass sign in front of her

Keep off the grass is also an interesting one as although it is written in the positive, it is sometimes good to just state a brief reason so that the reader knows it’s not just a rule just for the sake of it. So in smaller letters underneath it could say ‘grass recovering for the summer’.

Thinking in the positive is also as beneficial

It increases your chances of getting what you want and in a lot of cases makes you feel better. So for example if you really want something a good strategy would be to:

  1. Think of what you want
  2. Stay focussed on what you want

So by keeping that thing you want in your mind, over time you will get it. This process is further outlined in my post on goal setting and the law of attraction. What you do not do is focus on what you don’t want as you will end up getting that instead.

The reason for this is that whenever you say something, you bring it into your awareness. So if I asked you to not think of when you are next going to work, you have to think of when you are next going to work and then you have to go through the process of trying to forget it whilst thinking about it.  Basically it does not work unless you actively think of something else which in turn will override the original thought.

So if you ask someone “stop being horrible” you bring the concept of being horrible into their mind.  You effectively cause them to focus on the act of being horrible as well as focusing your own attention onto it as well making you feel a bit horrible as well.

On the other hand by saying “be nice to me” you are bringing the concept of being nice into their awareness.  So because they have heard you, they have to at least consider what you are saying even if they do reject it. This will also focus your attention onto being nice and make you feel a bit better.

With the example of “remember your keys” you’re actively giving the suggestion for the person to remember rather than telling them to do the process of not forgetting.

Examples of speaking in the positive

This is a good example to use with children

Slide to the left

How did you do?

I never said this would be easy right away however it gets easier with practise.

By saying 'hold my hand and stay by my side' you take the child's attention onto what it is you want them to do. There is no mention of a road or running so therefore they will never think of that.  In this particular example if you wanted to mention the road you could do so by saying:

'keep hold of my hand until we get to that lamp post over there.  This road is busy and I want to make sure you stay by my side just for the next few minutes”.

The danger of not speaking in the positive tense i.e. saying what you don't want

OK so in summer of 2012 I decide I need some help getting a sofa in through a first floor window above a bay window of a house I was moving into.  I had enlisted the help of two friends to help me, one of whom, called Simon, I had been talking about the concept of speaking in the positive with for some time. He was however still to be totally convinced of the importance of it; he was about to find out.

Simon owns a shop and office fitting firm so is familiar with structural strength.  Simon was outside the front of house and was measuring the distance to the ledge where the sofa was going to have to be lifted to. I had gone inside the house and up the stairs to the bedroom window and I shouted to Simon,

“Do you think the bay window roof is strong enough for me to stand on?”

“I'm not sure"  Simon replied, "Why don’t you jump on it and see”.  So after having Simons professional approval, I confidently bounced out the window and started to jump up and down on this bay window.  I quickly heard Simon shouting


“you asked me to jump on it” I exclaimed to which he corrected me,

“I said 'I wasn't sure, whatever you do don’t jump on it'”

And it was at that moment that Simon knew exactly how important it was to use positive language not only for his friends and co-workers in business but also for his children.  To be totally honest, the only words I actually paid attention to at the time were “jump on it” and without thinking I just did.  For the record, I had tested the strength of it on a previous day so I was aware it was structurally sound.

Here is an example for you to try

You are driving in a car and your friends' child is in the back seat of the car holding a Willy Wonker golden ticket right next to the open window with the wind rushing by, what would you say?

Let me know what you would say in the comments below; I'd love to know!

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Originally Posted
19 Apr
Last Updated 
15 Jul

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