Playing Your DS

Playing Your DS

I would like to introduce a thinking skill that is very simple to learn and use. I call this skill Dialectical Synonyms, or DS for short. If you remember from English class, synonyms are two words that have very similar denotations, but sometimes have completely different connotations. On one hand, the denotation of a word refers to its exact, precise, literal definition. On the other hand, the connotation of a word refers to whether that word sounds more positive or more negative. It is quite possible for two words to have the same exact literal definition, and yet one word sounds positive while another word sounds negative. In fact, this happens all the time in the English language. Two synonyms with different connotations provide the perfect opportunity for us to think more flexibly—in our own private thoughts, and also in our interactions with others.

Do you remember the negativity bias that we talked about earlier? If you recall, the negativity bias basically means that our brains are hard-wired to perceive (and over-perceive) negative experiences more than positive experiences. The negativity bias is the reason we have all of those ANT’s that we talked about. One way we can notice our own negativity bias is to pay attention to the words we use. If most of the words we think or say have a negative connotation, then maybe our negativity bias is more active than it needs to be. Learning to use more positive synonyms for some of our word choices can be an effective way of quickly adjusting for our negativity bias.

Let’s look at an example to show you what I mean. The words slender and skinny both refer to someone who is thin. Their definitions are virtually identical—they are synonyms. But do you also see how they have completely different connotations? Slender just sounds positive while skinny just sounds negative. Do you see how this nuance allows you to see something from a different perspective, to shift your thinking, and to have a new interpretation?

The English language has hundreds of examples of this pattern. Here are just a few more. Take a look at the following word pairs. Can you figure out which word has a positive connotation and which word has a negative connotation?     

Stingy               Youthful            Obsolete            Determined        Weird                Disciplined

Frugal               Childish             Vintage              Stubborn            Unique              Rigid

And the examples could go on and on. Start paying attention to the words you use to describe yourself and others. Are you using words with a positive connotation or a negative connotation? How does that particular connotation affect your TEA (thoughts, emotions, actions)? How can choosing different words create a completely different TEA?

Do you see how the way we choose to describe someone can make a huge difference in our perceptions and interpretations? The contrast becomes even more stark once we start to string together multiple attributes at once! Take a look at these examples:

1. Ted is an awful businessman. He is so stingy, stubborn, and rigid!

2. Ted is a great businessman. He is so frugal, determined, and disciplined!


1. Sally is a great supervisor. She is so considerate, witty, and unique!

2. Sally is an awful supervisor. She is so nosy, sarcastic, and weird!