The Simple Conversational Shift That Could Change Your Life
"E-Prime" language could get you unstuck and empowered.
Posted September 5, 2018 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
Many years ago, I’d often fall into a recurring disagreement with my former wife. At bedtime, I’d frequently find myself saying, "It's hot in here.” She’d respond, “No it’s not, it’s cold." This led to a frustrating, mind-numbing back and forth that went nowhere. It took quite some time until I reached a breakthrough by simply saying, “I feel hot.” After all, she couldn’t tell me I didn’t feel hot.
By removing the words—"it is"—I moved from making an objective statement to a subjective statement. This allowed me to shift from a battle over the truth into simply sharing my perception. Of course, that didn’t settle the issue around the thermostat, but nevertheless, I felt some relief to get past that argument. I did, however, get proactive about throwing the blanket off my side of the bed.
I remembered that exchange and started to focus on the importance of words. We pay very little attention to the words we express and don’t appreciate how profoundly they affect us and impact others.
Over the last 20-some odd years in my work as a psychotherapist and communications consultant, I’ve devoted my attention to understanding what gets in the way of successful communications. I’ve learned that words matter very much. Our words either set the stage for others to be open and curious about what we say or defensive and reactive to what they hear.
Our words become the foundation of our relationship not only with others, but they also become a key ingredient in our relationship with ourselves.
Our thoughts actually script our life experience. These thoughts impact us far more than anything else, more than our closest relationships. But what comprises our thoughts? Words.
When we string words together, they become thoughts. Some words in particular terribly limit us. I’m referring to the to be verbs. We can find them in virtually every sentence we speak. Recall the word is, in the battle over the room temperature?
The to be verbs are:
So why do I see a problem with the to be verbs? Let’s take a look.
Keeping us feeling stuck
Many verbs express movement and action. But the to be verbs have one element in common: They all connote a fixed, unchanging state. The to be verbs present as inert and static.
None of these words captures a picture of change or flow. So, if words inform our thoughts, and if we employ the to be verbs in virtually every thought, how can we feel anything but stuck? Let’s look at the word am: “I am worthless,” or “I’m unlovable.” These beliefs collapse into truths as they become unchanging facts in the story we tell ourselves. How can we envision and actualize change if our thoughts get stuck in an unchanging, inert picture of reality?
The to be verbs block new possibilities. They block movement.
It’s hard to change
Let’s look at the common refrain, “It’s hard to change.” Most people would agree with this belief. Of course, change would appear challenging when our thoughts are cemented in the to be verbs that preclude change.
Let’s look at what happens when we make the statement, “It’s hard to change,” without using to be verbs. You might say, “I struggle with change," or “It feels so hard for me to make a change.” Or, “I’ve never succeeded in making a change.” These statements still appear amenable to change. They speak to subjective perceptions rather than facts. Change can happen when you shift from making an absolute statement of fact to one of perspective.
In 1933, Alfred Korzybsky introduced the idea of eliminating the to be verbs from our common usage in his groundbreaking book, Science and Sanity. He proposed that the to be verbs were relics of an old worldview—Newton’s 17th-century mechanism. This classical view of reality depicted a machine-like universe comprised of objects, separate and distinct from one another. They appeared inert and fixed unless an outside force was applied. We became these objects. The lack of connectivity seen in Newton’s reality led to the ideal of objectivity. This construct of objectivity requires standing apart from what you observe: Newton’s theme of separation.
This picture of the universe presented a cold, austere, machine-like reality. This looks like a very inhospitable place for humans to exist. The to be verbs speak the language of the machine-like universe in that fixed objects and objectivity were accorded primacy. These words preclude movement, possibility, and potentiality. And so once again, we see ourselves as stuck. This has an immense and unimaginable impact on us.
At the time of Korzybski’s writing, the radical discoveries of quantum physics turned our notions of reality upside-down. We came to learn that reality appeared radically different than what Newton had depicted. This emerging worldview described reality as perpetually flowing and bubbling with possibility, a virtual reality-making process, with all parts inseparably connected to one another. Everything flowed as one inseparable whole. From this new worldview, change no longer appears hard; in fact, it seems inevitable.
The thesis of an objective reality became replaced by a participatory subjective reality. This new worldview looks very warm and friendly to humans, as human participation informs reality, and we no longer see ourselves as disconnected objects. To access and benefit from this new vista of reality, we need to alter our language since the to be verbs keep us stuck in 17th-century reality. Korzybski urged that we speak and write without using to be verbs. He called this E-Prime language—the omission of to be verbs.
When I became aware of this shift in language, I began to utilize it as a transformative communications technique. During my years as a therapist, I’ve come to see the remarkable progress many people have made when they learned to limit these verbs, particularly in challenging communications moments. Let’s look at more of the benefits.
To be verbs keeps us stuck in victimhood
Our negative feelings and thoughts about ourselves become inveterate due to our use of to be. These verbs imprint their message on us as they keep us wedded to them. I recall working with a middle-aged woman who constantly insisted that she was stupid. She said, “I am stupid.” I asked, “How did you come to this belief?” She replied, “My dad often said that to me when I was a kid, so I’ve always felt stupid." I ruminated with her, “So maybe you 'are' not stupid, but have always simply felt that way?” This exchange opened the door for her to reconsider this aspect of her identity. If she always felt that way, she could open to changing how she felt. We shifted from objective reality to perceptually constructed truth.
Look at your negative beliefs about yourself. Notice the to be verb—surely, you’ll find it—and restate your belief without to be.
I facilitated a self-esteem workshop a number of years ago when a man in the group shared his core self-worth problem: “I am nothing, I am empty.” Everyone felt stunned by his candid sharing. I asked him to restate his belief without using the to be verb. He said, “I feel like nothing, I feel empty.” His expression lightened when he said this, and he actually allowed himself a bit of a smile. I asked him why, and he responded, “If these feelings I have change, then I can change.”
To be verbs anchor us in feeling inert, powerless, and like victims. They speak of objective truths rather than perceptions and feelings.
Getting past the fear of making mistakes
When we speak in E-Prime, it enables us to move beyond our fear of making mistakes. When you communicate from your subjective perception—the language of the new quantum worldview—you avoid the pitfall of right vs. wrong. When you say, “I think,” or “I feel,” you invite the other person into your experience.
During a consulting gig I facilitated with a C-suite executive, she shared a bold and innovative perspective she had about a particular challenge the organization faced. When I asked her why she hadn’t shared this with her colleagues, she told me she felt intimidated about their judgment of her idea. I helped her craft the message by using E-Prime: “I have a thought I’d like to share about our problem…” or, “This may sound a bit out of the box, but an approach occurred to me that we never considered before.” If you simply share your thoughts, perspectives, or ideas in a subjective manner, you move past the fear of mistakes or right vs. wrong.
Free from the dread of making a mistake or concern around the judgments of others invites all participants to share their thoughts and perspectives. This leads to generative dialogues as we can share our inner monologues with one another. This serves as a powerful tool for learning as we begin to think together. The art of thinking together and collaborating flourishes with E-Prime. This method applies to corporations, families, relationships, to all communications.
I’ve witnessed how relationships become challenged and deteriorate when we share criticism of one another in an objective manner. Objective statements require to be verbs. Subjective statements avoid to be verbs.
Nothing derails a conversation as quickly as, "You are wrong." To express these words assures that your thoughts and opinions will fall on deaf ears and go nowhere. The moment one utters, “You are wrong,” the other person reacts with defensiveness, if not hostility. Shift into E-Prime and say, "I don’t see this the way you do," or, "Help me understand your point, I don’t see this the way you do.” This can open the door to reasonable communication.
I recollect a particular moment in a couple’s session when a woman said to her husband, “You are so selfish.” She expressed an objective statement. The air thickened as her husband prepared his defense and verbal assault upon her. I requested a time-out and prepped her to share her feelings in E-Prime. Her subjective offering of "You seem so self-centered to me,” allowed her husband to inquire why she saw him that way. A purposeful dialogue ensued.
E-Prime allows us to take ownership of our thoughts and feelings, rather than to blame ourselves or others. This opens us to dialogue, compassion, and empathy as we get past right vs wrong.
When you feel particularly challenged or anticipate a negative reaction to what you’re about to say try using E-Prime. Open your sentence with the words "I feel,” or “I think,” or “I’d like to share a thought or feeling with you.” You don’t need to feel fanatical about this. Choosing particular moments to speak without using to be verbs allows you to move past feeling like you're stuck. It also opens the doorway to generative dialogue. It may feel awkward at first, but when you invite in discomfort, you grow and advance into new territory. You can hoist the anchor that’s kept you feeling stuck when you selectively choose to speak without to be verbs.
To be verbs end possibilities. E-Prime opens the doorway to possibilities and shifts us from a stuck state of being into the process of becoming. We can then join in the flow of the universe that the new worldview describes when we unshackle ourselves from the words that imprison us.
Please note that all to be verbs in this article appear italicized for effect.
This article was the topic of my TEDx Beacon Street talk at Fenway Park and was excerpted in part from my book, The Possibility Principle: How Quantum Physics Can Improve the Way You Think, Live and Love.