The following is adapted from Big Brain Little Brain.

Poor communication, especially in work environments, is far too common. With all the stresses of the job, it’s easy to fall into a trap of being short with colleagues, dismissing their ideas, and generally being a poor communicator. However, that type of communication quickly becomes toxic. 

Luckily, it’s never too late to use the power of words to create change. Think about your own office dialog for a moment. Do you use positive, affirming words—or do you add to the negative attitude with words that are unhelpful or even unkind? The words you use are always your choice.

Home communication environments have the same characteristics. In fact, no matter what setting you find yourself in, it’s helpful to know exactly how to choose the right words every single time. Master these four strategies, and not only will you be able to improve your communication, you’ll also enjoy stronger relationships both at work and at home.

#1: Strengthen Your Vocabulary

Words are critical when it comes to crafting the right message. The power of communication is entirely in your hands. You get to choose the words that you’re going to use. You get to choose exactly when you use them. And you get to choose how you use them.

While there are more than 170,000 words in the English language to choose from, most people have a vocabulary of 20,000–30,000 words, yet many use less than 10,000 of these in their daily lives.

No matter how many words you use, it’s important to remember to think first and choose your words carefully. Avoid the temptation to spit out something fast, because the chances are high what comes out will be a reactionary comment. To avoid this, pause for a moment before you respond so you can sort through your vocabulary and convey your message precisely.

#2: Avoid Spring-Loaded Words

Your brain has a spring-loaded compartment for quick access to words and phrases. These words and phrases are ready to jump out at any point in a conversation.

The more rational, empathetic side of your brain (what I call the Big Brain) has a storage compartment filled with positive words and comments. It doesn’t need to fire those words and comments off quickly, either; it’s very comfortable with silence. It knows that pausing and reflecting can be an entirely appropriate response, especially when you need time to think things through and consider your words.

The snarky, sarcastic, selfish side of your brain (I refer to it as the “Little Brain”), on the other hand, has a storage compartment stuffed with pent-up phrases, building under pressure and desperately looking for their next chance to get out. It’s filled with every negative comeback, insult, snide remark, cliché, and inappropriate reaction you’ve ever contemplated. 

Little Brain is terrified of silence. It races to fill the silence, whether or not it’s the right time—or the right words to do so. If you want to give yourself a chance to choose the right words, you must resist the urge to fire off comments from the Little Brain. Instead, pause, make sure your Big Brain is in the driver’s seat, and then respond.

#3: Make a List of Your Foul Words

If you hit your thumb with a hammer by accident, letting out a string of four-letter words is probably the least of your concerns. If you’re by yourself, it might be no problem; in fact, it may actually be healthy to let it out, and loudly. But if you’re not alone, using loud tones or foul language can leave a poor impression. 

Often these words have become a habit and can seem hard to break. But remember, it wasn’t always a habit; you may have picked up those words from others along the way, and you can choose to leave them behind. Given time, you can actually retrain your now-automatic responses to instead use words that are more likely to be appropriate in any scenario.

Using foul language for added effect or to put others down is a definitive mark of Little Brain (and immaturity). The specific words that are considered profane may vary depending on the environment, but there are always some hot-button choices that are almost sure to offend.

You can still let off steam—just choose different words when others are present. Some Big Brain communicators even warn others they are just venting for a minute.

#4: Rediscover Salutations

Decades ago, every letter started with Dear Mrs. Smith or Dear Dr. Marshall. But today, the world of texting, tweets, and posts has stripped away many of these opening salutations—and the practice is beginning to work its way into emails, memos, and even letters in the business world. Instead, people are rushing straight to the information with little communication or greeting.

Big Brain knows that, when starting and ending an encounter, what you say first and what you say last leaves an impression. In written correspondence, your opening salutation is the smile in text that says hello in place of a welcoming facial expression and friendly tone. Writing some version of “hello” and “good-bye” in all forms of digital communications will open and close moments with a positive tone. 

When you leave a voicemail, be sure to use a positive tone that is clearly understood. Sometimes just a nice tone at the end of a voice mail will be enough to make the listener smile. Big Brain leads and leaves with a friendly hello and good-bye.

Be Intentional With Your Words

The words you use can empower someone, improve their outlook, and calm a situation—or they can do just the opposite. It’s always your choice. Luckily, everyone has the ability to improve their word usage and communication style, and when they do, it almost always improves their relationships and their reputation, both at home and at work. 

Remember, the words we use define us. Improving your vocabulary, avoiding foul language and spring-loaded words, and remembering to use salutations will go a long way towards improving communications at the office and at home. Get in the habit of doing all these things, and I promise you’ll quickly notice a positive impact on both your personal and workplace relationships.

For more advice on the principles of effective communication, you can find Big Brain Little Brain on Amazon.