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The Axioms of Non-Communication

A Guide for the Impotent, Defensive, Whiny, Unsuccessful Communicator

This is the beginning. It is a quest. It is a personal study every communicator can participate in, will participate in, and should participate in. The result will be more powerful, effective, positive, professional speech and writing.


Communication by Paul Shanks, creative commons, flickr

The goal is to recognize, counteract, eliminate, or strategically use non-communication. The key is an interesting new thinking style.

The language of non-communication is negative language. Non-communication can be devastating. Let me suggest that you seriously begin a personal journal to help discover your own non-communication styles. Identifying and correcting your own style is essential to planning winning verbal struggles.

First, we have to acknowledge certain realities about negative language. Let’s call them The Axioms of Non-Communication:

Axiom #1: Negative language is non-communication.

If I say to you, “That’s not how we do it,” or, “That’s meaningless,” how have you been helped? I’ve probably put you off because my response is somewhat accusatory, like you should have known; why didn’t you do more? Negative language teaches nothing.

Axiom #2: Negative language is destructive.

If I say to you, “You’re wrong,” or, “That’s not true,” or, “I don’t believe you,” you are now a victim. I haven’t provided information that would help you know what is right. Even if I follow that comment with some useful, positive information, chances are that you’ll have difficulty hearing it because I have seriously insulted or hurt you, and you are licking your wounds rather than listening to me. Negative language makes people mad.

Axiom #3: Negative language causes defensiveness (yours).

Once I’ve told you, “That’s not the way we do it,” or, “It won’t work,” or, “We didn’t feel you had much to share,” if I care about you at all, I know I haven’t communicated. I know it’s not what you wanted to hear, therefore I feel that I must now do something to overcome my non-communication. This is what defensiveness is, a feeling of inadequacy brought on primarily by incomplete, negative, stupid, or erroneous communication. When you hear negative language towards you, it’s the principal reason why you stop listening.

Axiom #4: Negative language drives communication out of control.

As soon as I say, “That’s not the way we think,” what are your options as a victim responder? You’ll ask me why not, why isn’t it, and why won’t we? These are all negative responses, which drive communication even further off any positive, productive track. Your situation is now sliding into the verbal ditch. You are out of control, and you can feel it. Negative language can cause permanent misunderstandings. “Please don’t worry about being intrusive.” “You will never be too intrusive because we have nothing we are not willing to share.”

Axiom #5: Negative language causes a kind of intellectual deafness.

Reporters, protestors, activists, and angry opponents seem to need negative language. In fact, the fulfillment of their mission revolves around the use of it. When they get negative reaction and language in response, communication becomes driven by it and conflict expands. It may be impossible to be positive enough to punch through the negative shield, once it has formed.

The news media especially use negative language as a means of balancing almost any positive news or information. Everything the media talks about must be discussed from a negative perspective to validate their objectivity. Here’s a sample:

  • Man Lands On The Moon, Cost Overruns Mar The Achievement
  • Life-Saving Medication Introduced Today In Cleveland, 17 Deaths During Clinical Trials Raise Questions
  • Religious Icon Rises From The Dead, Relationship With Prostitute In Previous Life Under Investigation

Axiom #6: Negative language prevents closure

Negative language is used in the mistaken belief that a negative response somehow brings closure to allegations, assertions, and negative questions. The actual affect is just the opposite.

“No.” The most corrosive word in any language or culture.

Lawyers believe that a robust denial is a strong communications position. It may well be in the courtroom, where there are judges, other lawyers, process, procedures, and rules, but outside the courtroom, a denial is fundamentally assumed by everyone to be an admission of guilt. “No comment” has been heavily studied. These words automatically create a perception of guilt about something, perhaps not this circumstance, but nevertheless guilty by those who read or hear it.

Negative language is inconclusive and always assailable. “I don’t doubt that you’re right. But nevertheless, we’re not happy about this.”

Axiom #7: Negative language derails any chance of victory.

Victory is supposed to be a positive event. If you haven’t defined victory, there is no language strategy that will get you there. Or, to say it positively, define victory and you’ll be able to structure a verbal and written strategy to achieve it.

John F. Kennedy said, “We will put a man on the moon by the end of the decade and return him safely to earth.” He did not say, “Despite unbelievable obstacles, no scientific basis, and little will on the part of the Congress to fund such a unprecedented, unusual, and doubtful endeavor, we will . . .” “I can’t comment on the past . . . I wasn’t there.” “I won’t comment on what hasn’t happened yet.” “I didn’t mean to apologize.” “It wasn’t our intent to not be involved.” “It’s not inappropriate.” “It’s not unlikely that people will disagree.” Negative language is the language of losers.

Axiom #8: Negative language “weighs” more than positive language.

Risk communicators have learned that issues or information that matters that is presented in negative language is impossible to clarify or use effectively, no matter how many positive words, phrases, and thoughts are added. Verbally, it seems, negative words weigh some multiple of positive words. Negativity is far more memorable.

Richard Nixon said, “I am not a crook.” William Jefferson Clinton said, “I did not have sex with that woman.” Yeah, right.

Axiom #9: Criticism (Toxic Retorts) is always negative, sticky and remembered forever. Toxic Retorts kill everything in their path.

Here is a sample of what I call, “Toxic Retorts,” which tend to kill any ideas or energy they come across:

  • “I don’t like that idea.”
  • “I don’t see the connection.”
  • “I wouldn’t say that.”
  • “It didn’t work before.”
  • “It’s against company policy.”
  • “It’s not affordable.”
  • “Let’s not overreact.”
  • “It’s not my job.”
  • “It’s not my agenda.”
  • “Our boss will never buy it.”
  • “Our customers wouldn’t like it.”
  • “That’s not a good question.”
  • “We aren’t that bad of a company.”
  • “We can’t change that fast.”
  • “We didn’t know.”
  • “We don’t care.”
  • “We don’t have enough resources.”
  • “What we’re not saying is . . .”
  • “You’re mistaken.”
  • “You’re never right.”
  • “You’re wrong.”

Axiom #10: Negative language will damage your career.

Barack Obama: Rarely, if ever, uses a positive, declarative phrase without including a negative disclaimer.

Bill Clinton: Positivized everything and saved his Presidency. Although, note Clinton’s special circumstance, where he immortalized that negative phrase, “I did not have sex with that woman.”

Richard Nixon: Who immortalized the phrase, “I am not a crook,” and emphasized it with showing four fingers.

James E. Lukaszewski, ABC, Fellow IABC; APR, Fellow PRSA, BEPS Emeritus

If you have questions, or would like to dive more deeply into the subject of this blog, you can reach me 24/7 at; 203-948-7029 (voicemail, email, text). I look forward, as a friend and colleague, to helping you achieve the objectives you’ve set for yourself for having a happier, more influential, successful and meaningful career.

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