Communicating Effectively: Negative Emotional Language

Dr. Clifford N. Lazarus


Alan and Claire had been dating steadily for several months before their first “real fight. ” They’d been to a party where Alan danced with Claire most of the time, but had also asked two other women to dance. “He was throwing himself at all the women! He wanted to dance with everyone but me,” Claire exaggerated.


There is a fundamental difference between descriptive language and emotional language. Emotional language tends to be very dramatic, strong, intense, and passionate. Descriptive language is rational, precise, and evident. It presents a simple, emotionally neutral statement about an event or a person. In descriptive language, George had danced with two other women. Period.

Using emotional language is fine when expressing positive feelings. “I love and adore you.” “You are marvelous.” But negative emotional language tends to damage relationships. “I hate the way you carved the turkey.” “You said some awful things to my sister.” It’s best to be descriptive. “Next time I’d like it better if you’d try to carve the turkey thinner.” “Let’s try to get my sister to help out with chores; I don’t think it helps to call her a spoiled brat.”

We often encounter people who use negative emotional language and we try to show them how to change it into purely descriptive terms. Here’s another example: John came home from work and found a note from his wife Rita, saying that she had gone to hear a lecture and was unable to make dinner. How did John describe it? He said, “She abandoned me; she just walked out and left me hanging.” We replied: “You mean she went out one evening and expected you to make dinner for yourself.”

Negative emotional language usually is accusatory and involves false inferences. There was no evidence, not a shred of proof, that George actually wanted to dance with “everyone but Claire.” The more insecure a person is, the more likely he or she will use negative emotional language.

Obviously, when faced with patients who are insecure, considerable therapeutic work is necessary, but the first step is to encourage them to stop using negative emotional language. This aspect makes a big difference. If people remember to use descriptive language, they will have taken an enormous first step to overcoming needless insecurity and developing a better relationship.


Dr. Clifford N. Lazarus is a licensed psychologist, Co-founder and Clinical Director of The Lazarus Institute. In addition to his general psychotherapy practice, Dr. Clifford Lazarus specializes in health and neuropsychology.

Dr. Clifford Lazarus received his B.A., M.S., and Ph.D. in psychology from Rutgers University where he was a Henry Rutgers Research Scholar.  Seen here are excerpts from one of his books, The 60-Second Shrink – 101 Strategies For Staying Sane In a Crazy World, a book, he co-authored with his father “One of the ten most influential psychotherapists in America”  Arnold A. Lazarus, Ph.D.  For more details on Dr. Clifford Lazarus visit this link to The Lazarus Institute.  Or visit his page here on

Books available at Amazon by Arnold and Clifford Lazarus

Direct links to two highly recommended books by Dr. Clifford Lazarus and Dr. Arnold A. Lazarus:

The 60-Second Shrink: 101 Strategies for Staying Sane in a Crazy World 

Don’t Believe It for a Minute!: Forty Toxic Ideas That Are Driving You Crazy

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