Choosing the Right Words:

How Language Choice Impacts Comprehension and Results

When we need to discuss a less-than-optimal situation with someone, we often struggle for the right words to effectively communicate what we need to say without causing resentment. Delivering criticism, no matter how constructive, is a difficult task. We can accomplish our mission in a more positive manner by phrasing our disapproval in the form of a possibility for the person, then enrolling him in that possibility. Instead of the individual leaving the discussion feeling bad, having just been told to change “or else,” we’ve now given him a possibility to fulfill.

How Enrollment Works
The concept of enrollment allows us to show someone that the possibility we are presenting is also something they want. The approach is based on appeal, rather than force, and it benefits all concerned. It is easy to persuade someone with rewards or even threats; however, the enrollment technique lets the individual decide for himself what is the most desirable outcome.

The technique is not for everyone. Without the ability to communicate a possibility effectively, the concept will not work. Instead, it will seem like manipulation. Most of us can see right through someone who is trying to persuade us into doing something by attempting to subvert our thought process.

The key to getting someone enrolled in your possibility is to provide the perfect contrast between two future states: the “almost certain, probable future” and the “exciting, possible future.”

The “almost certain, probable future” is what is currently happening and what will most likely occur if things continue the same way. The “exciting, possible future” is what could happen if they take action. The goal is to effectively describe the two futures so that neither one can be easily disputed. When there is no opportunity for dispute, the possibility is much less likely to meet resistance.

Using Language for Greater Impact
Your choice of words will be the determining factor for successful enrollment. They need to create the least amount of resistance. Successfully enrolling people into a possibility is most often accomplished by those who are able to make distinctions between two futures without creating internal struggles for the other person. Extreme words like “always” and “never” are likely to provoke such a struggle. When we tell someone, “You are always late for work,” it is natural for them to want to dispute that fact by pointing out that they were, in fact, on time more often than usual last month. If we tell someone that he never listens, he could try to prove that he does listen by saying he’s actually doing so right now. These examples show how important it is that our word choice is direct and indisputable so that we can avoid resistance and successfully enroll the person.

In comparison, moderate words like “sometimes” and “occasionally” are not likely to provoke a strong reaction of resistance. If we say, “I notice that you are sometimes late for meetings,” a person has little, if any, opportunity to dispute that he has not been late to a meeting at least once.

The golden rule is balance between communicating the issue effectively, but not aggressively, in order to eliminate resistance. The figure above shows how resistance increases with extreme words and decreases with moderate ones. The next time you need to choose words to address a situation, imagine the curve of resistance and where your language would fall.

This same graph can be used with many other word groups with related meanings. In this case, the group of words “never” to “always” are related in describing behavior frequency, and those words will engender a greater or lesser degree of resistance. The concept of greater or lesser resistance can be applied to other groups of adverbs, as well. For instance, you might describe performance by using the following range: worst, poor, average, good and best. Can you guess which will cause the most and least resistance? The same concept holds true not just with the five words in the graph, but with any words that describe a similar situation, especially a situation in which people are emotionally invested.

The next time you find yourself addressing a less-than-ideal situation, ask yourself if you can make your point using less extreme or aggressive language. Could you deliver the same message using moderate words? The more appropriate our word choice, the more chance we have of enrolling someone into a possibility, which is the most effective way to elicit the change we want to see.


© 2012 Ralph Dandrea. All rights reserved.

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