Words to live by

Post date: 07-Nov-2010 22:35:37

On a read through of The Gruffalo with my four year old recently, she queried why the mouse said “terribly kind” and “frightfully good” when terrible and frightful are really words for things being bad? This got me thinking about the quirks of the English language. Perhaps all languages are so quirky, sadly I’m not fluent enough in others to make a comparison, but I do know that the words we choose have a profound impact – not only on our meaning but also on our thinking.

We think in pictures and we're drawn towards what we're picturing in our mind. This isn't new and it's something most of us know intuitively. In business terms, the whole concept of “solution focussed thinking” is based on the same premise. So, knowing that we think in pictures, and that we're drawn towards those pictures, shouldn't we pay some attention to the pictures we're triggering every day by the words we use habitually and without even thinking about it?

Words to avoid in every day use and why:

Just/only: When people ask you what you do, do you ever find yourself qualifying your answer by saying “I'm just the bookkeeper”, “I'm only at home with the kids” etc.? The minute you say “just” or “only” in the qualifying sense, you diminish the value of what follows. The same applies when you do something nice for someone, they thank you and you respond with an automatic “it was nothing” or “it was only...” Now, you're diminishing your own effort and the validity of their expressed gratitude – a double whammy of the wrong kind!

Have to: How many things are we doing on a daily basis, telling ourselves we “have to”? If we're honest, it's everything from “I have to pay the mortgage/taxes/credit card” to “I have to get the shopping in”. Stop. How do you feel about doing things when someone else tells you you have to – not very enthusiastic if you're honest. We innately resist pressure and coercion. So why do we go around trying to coerce ourselves into doing things that are often both beneficial and easy? Every time we tell ourselves we “have to” get up, get dressed, go to work...we sap our own energy and intrinsic motivation. It may only be a verbal habit but it's a pernicious one. Switch those “have tos” to “want tos”. Figure out what's in it for me and try living life on a “want to” basis. Spend 24/7 doing things that you want to do. If you can't find why you want to, then stop doing it. As Lou Tice of the Pacific Institute puts it “Do what you want to do, do what you choose to do and be prepared to accept the consequences”.

It all comes back to the pictures in our heads. The phrase “have to” implies an “or else...” inevitably followed by a picture of the negative consequences we're trying to avoid. Whereas “want to” implies “because...” triggering a picture of the positive outcome we're hoping to cause.

Don't: Another culprit in triggering unintended pictures is the word “don't”. Ever thought about the pictures we trigger with sentences beginning with “Don't”? Consider these:

    • Don't slam the door

    • Don't forget your bag

    • Don't even think about hitting your sister

    • Don't be late with that report

Contrast that to the pictures triggered by the following:

    • Close the door gently

    • Remember to bring your bag

    • Be sure to be kind to your sister

    • Do have that report ready on time

In theory the message is the same, in practice the impact is profoundly different. Every sentence starting with don't triggers a picture of the very behaviour it is supposed to discourage. To be sure, it's much easier to identify the behaviour we don't want (especially in the heat of the moment) than to be clear and concise about what we would like to see happen. However, it is more than worth the extra moment to articulate it every time and, in any case, how reasonable is it for us to expect our children/ colleagues/ partners to know clearly what we want of them if we can't express it ourselves? A world defined by 'don'ts' becomes increasingly restricted and frustrating and is much more likely to force a rebellion in a totally different direction than to lead to the desired behaviours.

But: But is an interesting word. In the framework of pictures, it doesn't trigger anything in particular, positive or negative. Research has shown nonetheless that it triggers an emotional reaction. It blocks our thinking and diminishes energy. Consider for example being shown a presentation for the company business plan and then being asked for questions or comments. You open with “that's a very thorough and interesting case you've built (because of course you're a supportive and encouraging boss), but have you considered the impact of shifts in global markets?” Contrast that with “that's a very thorough and interesting case you've built, and have you considered the impact of shifts in global markets?” The shift from but to and is enough to shift the tone from critical, bordering on accusatory, to interested and expansionary. Rather than taking my word for it, play the no 'but' game this week. Every time you find yourself about to say 'but' replace it with 'and' and watch what happens.

In summary, no don'ts, buts or have tos. Try it and see the difference for yourself.