Social Skills: Abstract vs. Concrete Words

Social Skills: Abstract vs. Concrete Words

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Although in the English language it would appear that we all speak and hear the same language, there are multiple languages in one if we probe more deeply.


Although in the English language it would appear that we all speak and hear the same language, there are multiple languages in one if we probe more deeply. For example, at Fabic we often speak of an ‘abstract’ and a ‘concrete’ language all wrapped up in ‘the English language’. 

An abstract word is a word that, if I gave it in different situations, could be interpreted differently; and thus it is likely that some people get a different message to others.

For example, I will be having lunch soon. I will be finishing work soon. I will be going on holidays soon. In this example, ‘soon’ is the abstract word with multiple meanings. 

A concrete word is a word that, if I gave it in different situations, could only be interpreted one way; and thus it is likely that all people get the same message.

For example, I will be having lunch in ten minutes. I will finish work at 5pm today. I will be going on holidays on December 24th this year. 

When we embark on teaching new skills, we will increase the likelihood of a person actually learning and thus implementing the new skill if we all speak the same language and we all use concrete words. 

The following table provides some examples of abstract and concrete phrases and it is recommended you come up with your own table to start identifying the abstract words and phrases being used. You will be surprised how many abstract words most of us speak in our daily communication; inadvertently we then reduce the quality of support we are offering another person. 

Abstract Phrase

Concrete Phrase

Clean your room
  1. Put your toys in the box
  2. Put your dirty clothes in the washing basket
  3. Place the books on the shelf
Stop being annoying
  1. Stop talking to me about the football, I have had enough
  2. Start talking to me about music, I enjoy that
Settle down
  1. Stop running around
  2. Start sitting on the couch
  1. Stop touching other people
  2. Start touching you only
  1. Stop breathing so rapidly
  2. Start taking ten gentle breaths
  1. Stop shouting at me
  2. Start talking to me

When speaking to another person we simply need to ask: 

‘Have I used a language that allows the person to get the very message I am attempting to send?’ 

If the answer is ‘no’, simply try another way. 

This blank chart allows you to start exploring your own language; note examples of your own abstract phrases and find replacement concrete phrases to use instead. 

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