Positive language for avoiding conflict, negotiating agreements, and taking care of yourself
“Magic Sentences” are key phrases that offer practical ways to use specific language to prevent, minimize, or de-escalate conflicts with others. Different sentences will be useful in different situations. These examples represent a win-win approach to relationships, and while they were originally developed for use with young people, many of them can be equally effective in interactions with other adults.
“Great first draft.”
I used to use this one when one of my students would turn in work that is incomplete, illegible, or incorrect. It invites kids to redo, complete, clean up, or self-correct their work. In the right relationship or environment (with a bit of explanation, perhaps), this sentence, or some similar version of this sentence, can also be used for chores or commitments at home that are partially done or done half-heartedly. (Check to be sure your instructions are clear and understood.)
I especially like this sentence because it give others credit for work they’ve done or efforts they’ve made, and although you may not be willing to accept the quality or lack of completeness of the work, your focus is positive. Although you may need to clarify the requirements or communicate them in a different way, this approach allows you to encourage completion and improvement while avoiding the far more destructive tendency to respond to sub-par work with criticism, negative labels, and derision.
“We’ll try again later.”
Use this one for times when you need to withdraw a privilege or positive consequence. It might also sound like, “We’ll try again tomorrow” or “We’ll try again after lunch,” for example. Applications might include asking kids to move to different seats or stop reading a story when they get noisy, or withholding a privilege at home when your kids haven’t come through on their end. This sentence keeps the door open for kids to try again and make better choices at a later time.
“This isn’t working.”
This sentence offers an excellent way to interrupt disruptive or off-task behavior without attacking or criticizing or making anyone wrong. It also works with kids and adults when a certain activity or agreement isn’t working out the way you intended, expected, or desired.
“I know you wish you could…”
This sentence validates a child’s desire to do something (not go to a particular class, go to the nurse or go home, avoid a chore, hit a classmate, not take a test, etc.) when that option is not available or not negotiable. Depending on the situation, “I know you wish you didn’t have to…” works equally well.
“That won’t work for me.”
A simple, non-attacking way to reject someone’s suggestion when it proposes something inappropriate or inadequate for your objectives or needs. You can validate the worth of the proposal (“Interesting idea” or “Oh, that does sound like it would be fun”) and, if appropriate, offer a counterproposal or offer to look for opportunities to offer that suggestion at another time.
“Think of a solution that will work for both of us.”
This statement transfers responsibility to a dissatisfied child (or adult) to find a solution that will work for both of you—while not creating or becoming a problem for anyone else.
I had students who objected to a particular assignment, and when I suggested that they come up with a better way to, say, practice their spelling words or demonstrate a particular science concept, they invariably came up with creative and effective ways to do so, often activities or projects that required far more work than my initial assignment.
This is a great way to settle chore disputes, as well. I’ve heard from numerous parents who have used this exact sentence (or even just asked their kids which chores they would prefer instead) to secure their kids’ commitment and participation.
“Can you live with that?”
Use this one for affirming another person’s commitment after coming to an agreement about something. It works with kids and adults.
“Tell me what you just agreed to (do).”
This statement confirms the other person’s understanding of an agreement, making sure you are both on the same page. While worded more for use with students or children, some version of “Let’s make sure we both understand our agreement here,” is reasonable when you want to be sure that you both have agreed to the same thing.
Try this one when you have to ask for something that seems unreasonable, ask for something just because it’s important to you, or when you have to give seemingly needless instructions, for example. This works best when mutually-respectful relationships have been established.
“Because we’re all different and we all get to succeed.”
This was a sentence I used to repeat whenever I was questioned (by students, parents, colleagues, or administrators) about why different students were on different pages, had different assignments or different requirements, or needed to be taught in different ways. You can also use this at home to explain differences in what you allow or require of different children. (See example below.)
“Equally appropriately challenged.”
More of a phrase than an actual sentence, this quote evolved when talking with teachers and parents about differentiated instruction and meeting individual children’s needs for success and achievement. This expression offers a win-win definition of “fair” (as opposed to the more traditional definition in which “fair” means “same”).
This sentence allows different kids to be on different pages, have different assignments or different requirements, or to be taught in different ways. In your home, it allows different children to study in different ways or on different schedules, or it might apply to how you give (or leave) instructions for your kids or distribution of chores, for example.
“We don’t say that here.”
This is a non-attacking response to child’s hurtful or offensive language. We don’t have to make others wrong for using language we don’t like. You can also consider simply stating, “I don’t like that word. Please don’t use it around me.” or in other situations, “I don’t like those kinds of jokes,” and then changing the subject.
This makes your preferences clear without judging, attacking, or criticizing the other person. These sentences can help you set standards of respect and courtesy in your classroom, home, or work environment.
“My door is open.”
An invitation to come and talk. Indicates an awareness of a troubled individual’s situation without being nosy or invasive. Most effective in a high-trust relationship and emotionally-safe environment. (This sentence may be especially valuable to students who don’t feel they have a safe adult in their lives. A note of caution: If a child does come to you, please consider literally keeping your door open or in some way being visible to others to protect yourself from any possible misunderstandings.) This sentence is valuable in any relationship.
“We don’t need to talk about that.”
A great way to disengage from gossip or toxic interchanges. Also effective: “That’s none of my business” or “I appreciate your concern.” Change the subject immediately to make it clear that you do not wish to continue the discussion. (This one is especially effective when dealing with toxic adults in your life.)
“Thank you for sharing.”
This sentence allows you to disengage from unsolicited (or bad) advice, unnecessary information, criticism, or a toxic exchange without becoming defensive or attempting to self-justify, which is likely to just get you in deeper and expose you to more of the same.
Consider negotiating with kids
The thought of negotiating with young people is a scary and disorienting notion for most adults, especially those of us who grew up in more traditional authoritarian relationships where adults made decisions and children were chastised or punished for questioning them. (And yet expected to be able to go out into the world armed with common sense and good decision-making skills.)
Sometimes “negotiating” involves little more than asking kids for their input or ideas and giving some consideration to their preferences when you can. Only in a win-lose, black-and-white (all-or-nothing) world could this be “giving in.” So think about ways to negotiate with kids, offering them access to what they want within the limits you want or need because:
- It’s a great way to communicate your limits. (It’s not giving in! Honest!)
- It’s a great way to secure a commitment.
- It’s a great way to be sure they understand both what you want and what they can expect (positive consequences) if they follow through on their end.
- It’s a great way to accommodate kids’ needs for power and autonomy without compromising your own authority.
- Sometimes they can come up with better solutions and ideas than we can!
These sentences originally offered for educators and parents to use with kids, but over the years, I find myself using them more and more often (and generally quite successfully) in my relationships with adults—for the exact same reasons as stated above.
Keep watch for more sentences, or contact me if you have any “words of wisdom” that have worked for you!
Excerpted and adapted from The Win-Win Classroom, by Dr. Jane Bluestein © 2008, Corwin Publishing, Thousand Oaks, CA.
© 1991, 2008, 2013, Dr. Jane Bluestein
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Related links for educators:
Guidelines for Offering Choices to Students
Guidelines for Reinforcing Positive Student Behavior
Handling Negative Student Behavior
Motivating Cooperative Behavior
Questions, Not Answers
Rules and Boundaries: Effectively Creating Structure
The Challenge of Setting Boundaries
Dealing with Difficult Colleagues
What’s Wrong with I-Messages?
Related links for parents:
The Challenge of Setting Boundaries
Guidelines for Handling Your Children’s Negative Behavior
Guidelines for Offering Choices to Your Children
Guidelines for Reinforcing Cooperation
Motivating Cooperative Behavior
Thinking of “Consequences” as the Good Stuff
Ways to build Irresponsibility in Children
Ways to Model Respect with Your Children
What’s Wrong with I-Messages?
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