Effective communication is one of the most important skills we can develop, yet many of us fall short in this area.

“Words are singularly the most powerful force available to humanity. We can choose to use this force constructively with words of encouragement, or destructively using words of despair. Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate and to humble.
Yehuda Berg”

“Why are you always so stupid?” is a common remark that we hear siblings scolding each other.  “Can you stop being an idiot?” would be another common one.  Whatever your life stage, however old you are, I’m sure you can think of words spoken to you that have been hurtful.

What do you think about a statement like this: “That’s a kind thing that you have done today.”  Sounds good? Yes, but structurally, it has the potential to be more impactful.

In this article, I will share 3 guiding principles to help you structure your positive and negative communication to make them even more powerful. Once you understand what these 3 principles are, your eyes and ears will be opened and you will start to recognise these distinctions in yourself and others.

The 3 Guiding Principles for Communication

Behaviour / Identity (Logical Levels)

Saying someone is stupid (Identity) is very different from saying someone did something stupid (Behaviour). In many counselling approaches, counsellors are intentional about attaching a problem to a behaviour rather than the person. If the problem was the behaviour, you could always change the behaviour; however, if the person was the problem, what do you do? Attaching a problem to a behaviour creates much more opportunity and at the same time reduces defensiveness.

“You are a good person who made a bad decision.” Heard this statement before? Observe how it separates a person’s behaviour from a person’s identity.

Rule of Thumb: Attach positives to a person’s identity and negatives to a person’s behaviours.

Temporal / Permanence (Time)

“You won… for now.”  Is a common statement used between people who are competing with each other. It suggests that the victory is temporary and that the opponent will win the next round.  Let’s look at some words suggesting the temporal or permanent nature of what’s being said.

“This time”, “this round”, and “sometimes” are examples of words suggesting that the observation is temporary.
“Always”, “never”, and “all the time” are extremes suggesting that the observation is permanent.

Rule of Thumb: Use Temporal words with negatives and Permanent words with positives.

Specific / Universal (Scope)

“You make all the bad choices” is universal, whereas “You make bad food choices” is specific.

Do note that the word “always” can also suggest that something is universal.

Rule of Thumb: Be more specific with negatives, and more universal with positives.


Let’s give it some practice. Imagine that you’ve just started a new job and asked your co-worker for a favour. Your co-worker delivered it to you well before the deadline. What do you say?

“Thank you for always (Permanence/Universal) producing great work. You are a great person (Identity) to work with!”

Remember that these are guidelines; it may not be appropriate to use the word “always” since it is the first time you’re working with your co-worker (new job remember?). But if you had worked with this colleague a couple of times before, the word “always” may be suitable. Be flexible in how you use these principles and you’ll be amazed by the results.

Adding the StrengthsFinder Layer

If you know the other person’s StrengthsFinder Talent themes, it helps you to be even more specific and impactful with your communication. Using the previous example, let’s say your co-worker has the Responsibility talent theme, and you know he takes great pride and ownership in his work. You could say, “Thank you for the excellent and timely work! You’re a man of your word!”

The most important conversation

The most important conversation you will ever have, is the one you have with yourself.

Communication isn’t only restricted to interacting with others. We often fail to recognise the self-talk we have in our lives and the impact it has on our self-image and self-esteem.  So remember to use these principles in your own self-talk as well.

Think of the last time you made a mistake – what did you say to yourself? How could you change what you say?

Think of the last time you did something great – what did you say to yourself? How could you change that as well?

These principles may seem simple, but they are powerful! Take them out for a test drive and see how well they work for yourself!


About Alex Wong

Alex is a Strengths Enthusiast who is both a Gallup Certified Strengths Coach, and a Certified Strategic Strengths Coach. His passion is in helping people grow into the best versions of themselves by appreciating and growing their innate talents. In his spare time, Alex is a hobbyist magician and a volunteer at his church Sunday school. Top 5 StrengthsFinder 2.0 Themes: Empathy, Individualisation, Developer, Strategic, Learner