I’m trying to change the language that I use. It’s been an uphill process. All right, maybe you need a little of the backstory. A few months ago a colleague and I had a difference of opinion (notice I didn’t say disagreement?) about a business project. Somehow during that conversation she shared with me that I sounded disgruntled. It was like a slap in the face and my immediate reaction (internally) was denial. I’m not feeling disgruntled. Why would she say that? This is more about her than about me. When the sting started to fade I was able to consider the comment a little more constructively. What did I do that might cause her to see me that way? I came to a realization that the language (words) I often use and the focus of my casual conversation (problems, challenges and personal disasters) might be contributing.
The words we use not only communicate intelligibly about a topic, they also communicate powerful messages about us personally as well. Sometimes the message they communicate is not the one that we intend. Positive language communicates a message of enthusiasm, confidence and credibility. Negative language can communicate a much different story – disengagement, frustration powerlessness. How would you prefer to be seen? You probably spend a great deal of your time and energy trying to influence others. According to a Qualtrics study of over 7000 participants, employees in the U.S. are spending about 40% of their time engaged in some form of influencing others. How you are seen – your personal brand – really matters. The words you choose can have a real impact.
The language we use can affect our personal brand in several ways
People like to do things for, and with, people they like. Long-term influence is driven – in part – by our likability. There are a number of traits that can contribute and positivity is high up on the list. We like people who have a positive outlook. If you’ve ever spent time with a colleague with the personality of Eeyore – the pessimistic, gloomy, depressed donkey from Winnie-The Pooh – you’ve experienced the contrast first hand. Their language, and the focus of their conversation bring us down. After a while we start to avoid them. They walk into the room and we let out a big sigh. It’s as if a dark cloud just rolled in and our dog just peed on our leg.
On the other hand people who use positive language make us feel good. The words they use and what they talk about elevate our mood. We feel better for having spent time with them. We like them.
Our ability to create a positive or negative emotional state in another person begins with the focus of our conversation. Do we use a negative or a positive frame in our communication?
Almost every situation that we experience can be seen from multiple perspectives – positive, negative or neutral. The way we naturally see a situation is probably a function of our personality, our mental models and our in-the-moment internal state. Framing is the process of consciously choosing one particular meaning – or set of meanings – over another. It begins internally and becomes apparent to others through the words we choose.
Yes, you absolutely have to be authentic. But that doesn’t mean that you have to accept every thought that comes in to your head. You get to choose how you experience a particular situation. You can choose to put it in a positive functional frame or you can choose to look at it negatively. Put that way most of us are going to say, “Well, I’ll choose to look at it positively”. The problem is that many of us – myself included – often allow the frame and meaning to develop on its own rather than making a conscious choice.
I worked on a large project a couple of years ago with a number of other people. After the completion of the three-day launch event we were debriefing and I saw first hand both positive and negative framing. One colleague, a very intelligent and perceptive individual gave his impressions:
“The materials had a number of errors. The Coaches weren’t focusing on the right issues. We can’t continue to use that instrument. It’s too complex, participants aren’t able to understand it well enough to use it in their interactions.” He went on painting a picture of doom and gloom by focusing on what he saw as being wrong with the kick-off.
Another stakeholder painted a different picture with her frame.
“I thought that we made real improvements in this kick-off versus last years. All of the participants seemed really engaged throughout all three days. The timing of the activities seemed to work really well. I noticed participants really using the tools in their breakout sessions. I also think the Coaches seem to understand the conceptual model and the process that they are going to be involved in. I do think that it’s going to take some time for them to grow into their roles. But we do have a process in place to work with them over the next year.”
A negative frame focuses on what’s wrong or what can’t be done. It may have a connotation of blame. A positive frame focuses on opportunities and possibilities. It describes what can or might be done. It has a tone of optimism or helpfulness.
How do you frame? Do you tend to focus on what’s wrong and point out problems? Or are you able to notice and communicate what’s right about a situation? I’m not suggesting that you ignore a problem. However, the way you describe it – the frame you put around it – will affect how others perceive it. It will also affect how they perceive you.
The Power Of A Single Word
A metaphor is a type of frame. We use metaphors and analogies to make comparisons and communicate a perspective about an issue. The way we frame the metaphor can have an impact on another’s perceptions and attitudes. Psychology Professor Lera Boroditsky and doctoral candidate Paul Thibodeau of Stanford University conducted a study to gauge the impact of metaphor. Their research focused on attitudes towards crime. In five experiments, subjects were asked to read short paragraphs about rising crime rates in the fictional city of Addison and answer questions about the city. In some of the descriptions, crime was framed as “a beast” in others it was described as “a virus”. That was the only difference – 1 word – between the descriptions. The researchers found that the subject’s attitudes about, and solutions for, crime were influenced by the metaphor frame. Subjects who read about crime as a beast were much more likely to endorse a law enforcement solution while the subjects who read about crime as a virus were more likely to support social reform. Somehow I have to think that our national politicians are acutely aware of the power of framing.
There is also evidence that words can have an impact on the physiology of the brain as well. Just as the written frame influenced the attitude of the research subject, our internal frame influences our own attitudes and behaviors. The way we see a situation – our mental map – will affect how we talk about it. We can just let nature take its course and allow whatever mental map is in place to dictate the frame that we communicate, or we can consciously choose the lens through which we will view an issue or situation.
So the words we use to describe something, whether they be self talk in our own mind or spoken aloud to a room full of people affect how we view a situation. Positive language is the language of optimism and confidence. When we use it, it can create attitudes and behaviors that lead to a positive self-fulfilling prophecy. Negative language focuses on blame and reactivity. It can paint an unflattering picture of who we are or what we are about. So what types of language can frame negative or positive?
I Can’t I Will
I Have To I Choose To
I Must I Want
All right Yes
Yes But Yes And
That’s just the way it is Let’s explore our options
It’s easy to develop a pattern of negative language. Robert Schrauf at Penn State found that we have far more words in our vocabulary that express negative feelings rather than positive emotions. His research found a consistent 50% Negative 30% Positive 20% Neutral ratio across cultures.
The Negative Impact On You
Not only can the words we use create negative perceptions in others, they can also create or reinforce negative attitudes and paradigms within our own internal state. In addition to revealing negative self-beliefs, our language can act as a type of self-programing mechanism. Our subconscious hears and responds to our language. There’s a walnut shaped structure in the middle of our brain called the Thalamus. It relays sensory information about the outer world to other parts of the brain. According to Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman the Thalamus doesn’t differentiate between real and imagined. It processes our words and thoughts similarly to how it treats what we see, and hear and experience with our senses. It doesn’t distinguish between outer reality and how you’ve internally framed the issue.
“Our language-based thoughts shape our consciousness, and consciousness shapes the reality we perceive. So choose your words wisely because they become as real as the ground on which you stand. Andrew Newberg & Mark Robert Waldman “Words Can Change Your Brain”
Actions You Can Take
- Monitor Your Self-Talk. We All talk to ourselves. Pretty much all the time. We have a rich internal dialogue in which our everyday consciousness is engaged in a running commentary of what we experience and imagine. Listen to what you are saying to yourself. Is it positive or negative? It all starts on the inside. If you hear your self-talk saying “this sucks, it’s unfair, I can’t”, or some other negative comment, you can do something about it. Make some positive changes. Replay that self talk in a more optimistic, more positive language.
- Create A Psychological Space. Events can sometimes come out of the blue and lead to a knee-jerk negative response. I was walking across 8th Avenue in NYC over the summer and had a guy in a drop top Mercedes come within 3 inches of hitting me. I wasn’t expecting it and my internal framing and loud external language was positivity challenged (to say the least). When you encounter a negative situation, try to create space between the event and your response. Pause, count to six, ask questions, whatever works for you. That space will give you an opportunity to formulate a more positive response.
- Consciously Choose A Positive Response. Make a decision – in the moment – to use language that looks at the issue in a positive – or at least neutral frame. Rather than focusing on what can’t be done offer alternatives. Instead of pointing fingers and blaming, accept ownership for improving things. Rather than limit your influence, consciously communicate optimism and confidence by using affirming language.
- Say Good Things About Yourself. If our subconscious is listening and paying attention to our self talk, beating ourselves up in our internal dialogue can do significant damage. Maybe it’s time to start giving yourself some kudos and positive feedback. Celebrate your accomplishments. Focus on what you’ve done well don’t dwell on the stuff that hasn’t worked out.Let other people know about your achievements.
- Pump Up The Positive When possible – and appropriate – pump up the positivity. Instead of saying the meeting was good, how about really good or even excellent. Remember our internal frame and language can affect our internal programing. Make a conscious choice to boost your emotional affect.
- Become A Positive Contagion. Your attitude and energy can be contagious. When people like or feel comfortable with you they will often mirror you subconsciously. Work to be the person who raises the energy and the mood in the room.
For me, maintaining a positive frame and using positive language is an ongoing process. I don’t do it naturally. I have to work at it. But I am finding that the more I do it, the easier it becomes. I was at a restaurant with my wife and daughter the other night when the light immediately above our table went out. They both started complaining about it. My positive response was “Maybe we can ask them for candles. It could be nice here with candlelight.” My daughter looked at me in disbelief and asked, “Who are you?”
Baby steps, I keep reminding myself. Baby steps.