Those Cop-out or Weasel Words

Listen for the cop-out or weasel words

They tell you how the person really feels

Like a lot of people who use NLP I have been accused of being ‘picky’ about words or even that I’m ‘just playing with words.’

The accusations are quite understandable. And could even be taken as compliments!

In NLP we do pay a lot of attention to the words and phrases that people use - because these provide insights into a person’s real thoughts and feelings.

Take the NLP tendency to listen for cop-out or weasel words. People often use these to avoid being contradicted or pinned down. They can be useful. And they can be used to deceive people – including ourselves.

I will do it vs. I might do it!

When people talk about goals or plans they often use a class of cop-out words called qualifiers such as ‘I might do this’ or ‘Hopefully I’ll do this’.

For example, let’s say that you ask both Sam and Carol What are your plans for the next three months?

Sam: Well, I’m going to try and reduce calories – I really must lose some weight you know. Oh yes, and hopefully I’m going to give up smoking – and I’d like to do some decluttering in the flat at some stage… At least, they’re my plans right now…

Carol: Beginning tomorrow I’m cutting out junk food apart from perhaps one or 2 meals each month.  I’m going to buy nicotine replacements this afternoon and will be free of cigarettes by the end of the month.  And Ive set aside Saturday to declutter the flat. Yep, I’ve decided it’s time to make some changes.

At first Sam and Carol both come across as enthusiastic and optimistic. But, if you listen carefully to the words they use, you can ‘hear’ how they really feel – and get a pretty good idea as to which of them will have achieved their goals in three months’ time.

‘Like to’ or ‘Intend to’?

People like Sam can sound motivated and aspirational. They’ll say ‘I do really want things to happen in my life…’ and often they’ll mean it and believe it.

Yet, in reality, they sort of want things to happen...

if it’s not too much trouble…

if they don’t have to work at it…

if everyone helps…

if they can find the time…

if it isn’t too disruptive or get in the way of doing things which they enjoy.

They dream rather than act. They talk a great talk and can be very convincing – to themselves and to everyone else.  And they miss out on one little bit… making a firm commitment to act.

The ‘weasel words’ tell how they feel

If you listen for them, the words people use will clearly tell you whether they are doers or dreamers. Carol is a doer. Sam would like to be one but she’s in dreamer mode – as indicated by how she uses cop-out words to qualify everything.

Commit or ‘cop-out’?

There’s a big difference between saying ‘I’d like to do that’ and ‘I will do that’.

In the above example Carol intends to:

Cut out junk food

Free herself of cigarettes

De-clutter her home.

There are no ifs or buts here – the way she’s phrased it indicates her commitment and her planning.

Sam, on the other hand, is giving herself lots of ‘get out’ clauses:

She may ‘try to’ eat less fattening food

She ‘hopes’ to give up smoking

She ‘would like to’ do some decluttering ‘at some stage’.

Not only that but she tags on yet another way of avoiding commitment - at the end she adds ‘at least, they are my plans right now’.

People like Sam use a lot of words and phrases which, if you listen out for them, quite clearly indicate their lack of belief in their plans and ideas.  Words like



I hope


If I can

If it’s possible


I’d like to

I’ll try

It’d be nice to be able to

…with a bit of luck

If possible...

So next time a friend says to you that ‘we must try and meet up for a drink or coffee’ or ‘hopefully we can find the time for a longer chat’ listen to the way they phrase it – and don’t expect to be seeing them again very soon…

It’s not just about ‘them’…

We all use these cop-out words and phrases and they can be useful when used with awareness. But sometimes we use them to delude others – and ourselves. I’m sure I’m not the only one who is skilled at deluding himself from time to time.

Have you ever, for example, decided to do something while, deep down, knowing or feeling that you are not actually going to do it!

Well, if you make a habit of carefully listening to the words you use when telling people about your plans and ideas, as well as the words you use in your self talk, you will soon begin to notice when and where you use ‘get-out’ words and phrases.

It gives you advance warning to stop kidding yourself.

Action steps

Raise your awareness of cop-out words. Over the next few days listen for them in what you and others say. (Keeping a list will help make you even more conscious of them.)

For yourself: Each time you find yourself using a cop-out word stop and think: Am I avoiding making a commitment here?

With others, and please use this with caution: when someone uses a cop-out word consider if they are avoiding a commitment – or simply using a figure of speech. And, if the situation warrants it, ask them if they are prepared to make a commitment.

(Why ‘use with caution’? Well, even though you may do so with the best of intentions, being too enthusiastic in pulling people up on their use of cop-out or weasel words is a great way to quickly become…. lonely.)



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