The Case for Positive Language

Language affects our feelings. When we use normative terms to describe a person or situation, we are essentially saying that they are good or bad. If it’s perceived as the latter, we might trigger an unintended fight or flight reaction that results in negativity directed toward us. Usually, we don’t want to make someone angry or defensive. We want to state our opinion or objective. When the person responds in a way that seems inappropriate, we may not realize that we started it by using language that could be perceived as judgmental. If we truly want to exact a change, we can say a situation is unworkable and explain why. That’s less offensive than saying something is wrong. We’re not judging it; we’re simply coming to a conclusion about it, which is that it doesn’t work. A positive approach opens the door for discussion, which can lead to more workability.

Normative terms, such as “good” and “bad,” are grounded in subjectivity; a positive term like “unworkable” is less personal because it is a conclusion based on the facts of our experience.

In order to have positive discussions, we must avoid judgment in our language. If we want to have a positive conversation about topics that are normally emotionally charged, such as the debt ceiling or abortion, making good and bad judgments will render it nearly impossible to reach any kind of conclusion or agreement. For example. if we’re talking about tobacco use and we say that smokers are bad and disgusting, smokers and the people who care about them might get defensive. The language of judgment can create unworkability in that conversation. Instead, we might talk about what problems addiction causes and how that might be addressed. We’re not avoiding the issue by leaving our personal opinions out of the conversation. We’re actually doing something about it by avoiding useless rhetoric in favor of finding a workable solution to a real problem.

To foster change instead of resentment, talk about what something really is, not what you think about that reality.

Let’s use the example of someone who is often late for meetings. It happens so frequently that it’s become the habit of the other attendees to joke about Brad’s 90 percent chance of delaying the proceedings, even though they are not really amused. If Brad’s colleagues really want the bad habit to change, they won’t call him out on it in a publicly humiliating manner, making him feel like a loser, or call him into a private meeting to tell him how bad of a job he’s doing in this regard. It would only cause Brad to have resentment, with the result that he probably won’t care if he’s late next time, too. An opinion changed by force tends to remain the same, as the adage goes.

Change doesn’t happen by making someone feel blamed and judged. Change occurs when we state the facts that can’t be denied and explain how they make us feel. In this case, Brad’s team members could state the irrefutable truth that he is sometimes late and that it makes them feel like he hasn’t considered the ramifications of leaving everyone waiting. This type of language is less likely to put Brad on the defensive; it will pave a path for discussion and change.

Normative language creates judgment and results in fear. Positive language encourages alignment and creates more workable relationships.

When we’re using positive language, we’re selecting words that create clarity and curb emotional response. If you want emotional response, use normative language; if you want change, use positive language. This works at all levels. We can deliver even hard facts with clarity to produce change, instead of delivering insults that cause chaos. It works because we are stating what we believe to be true with the awareness that, in fact, it might not be. Letting the other person know that we have such-and-such an opinion about something but are open to discovering that we might be wrong is not attacking; it’s stating how we currently see the world.

Be clear that what you’re voicing is your perspective, and that you accept that the way you see it might be different than the way others may see it.

A final point worth mentioning is that positive language needs to be conveyed with a corresponding tone. Using positive words in a “bad dog” voice will undermine what we are trying to accomplish. Make sure you are using a positive tone to accentuate your message.

The best relationships develop from communicating effectively about what is and isn’t working. It’s entirely possible to have a great conversation about something “negative,” as long as we eschew normative language that breeds resentment in favor of positive language that encourages change.


© 2012 Ralph Dandrea. All rights reserved.

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