3 min read

Leading Through Change: The power of language

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TL;DR:

  • The way we speak can change the way we think

  • Use the language of choice and experimentation to have more control in your life

  • Say “I choose to” or “I’m trying” more often.


Watch your language

“Words create worlds”
- JONATHAN FRANZEN

Two years ago, I ran a personal experiment after reading Atomic Habits by James Clear. To be more grateful in your life, Clear suggests that every time we say we "have to" do something, we replace it with "I get to." I gave it a go.

For a week, every time I found myself about to say "I have to" (‘I have to cook dinner’, ‘I have to pick up the kids’, ‘I have to be in Auckland that week’) I swapped it out for "I get to." 

I get to cook dinner’ suddenly felt like a privilege. We have the food, skills and resources to create a healthy meal, and I’m home to do it. 

 ‘I get to pick up the kids’ became a lifestyle indicator. I can prioritise my children inside my workday. 

I get to be in Auckland’ became a marker of work variety and satisfaction. 

I was genuinely floored by the difference - and it triggered a similar exploration in my work.  Could we diagnose different patterns of behaviour and thinking based on the language people use? It turns out that language isn’t just a reflection of what we think - it’s also a powerful way to shape it. We believe what we say, creating a virtuous (or not) cycle of feeding our beliefs and actions.

After months of reviewing survey responses and monitoring the words people were using in workshops and learning sessions, some clear themes emerged that showed the link at work. Check out the ladder below.

change

 
 

Passive language

You might be familiar with the cliche of being less reactive and more proactive - but reactive gets a bad rap. At least you’re active!

Far worse is when we’re passive in the face of change and uncertainty. You’ll notice this language when people have slumped shoulders and start to sigh.

Faced with lockdown, they say “I just can’t homeschool again” or “I can’t take another one.”

This is the sort of language that leads us to defeat. Rather than finding options or looking for opportunities, speaking like this encourages people to throw in the towel.

If you’re noticing people - or yourself! - speaking about what you can’t do, try and nudge the dial toward more active language, by thinking about what you can do, for a quick boost.

Active language

When we’re reactive, we’re busy and overwhelmed. We might be taking action, but we feel put upon and resentful. You can diagnose this behaviour when people talk in terms of constraints and obligations - reactive people say they “have to work from home” or “have to get this finished” - focusing on the external loss of control in their lives.

While it’s far better than being passive, getting stuck here has the potential to make us feel worse than we need to, by robbing us of a sense of agency.

To shift the dial on reactivity, focus your language toward what you can choose to do. Faced with a lockdown, the proactive person might be heard saying things like “I’m choosing to start earlier so I can homeschool in the afternoon” or “I’m choosing to get all my meetings done on a Tuesday.”

The difference is stark, and we see it in body language too - spines straighten, faces lighten and a sense of control sets in.

If you’re feeling put upon, and talking about shoulds and have-to’s, hack your attitude by verbalising what you can control and choose to change, to start making progress.

 

Experimental language

The most powerful language we can use is focused on growth, through experimentation. Rather than trying to control all the variables, an adaptive attitude talks about what we can learn or try.

Faced with lockdown, an adaptive person can be heard saying “I’m trying a different schedule to see what happens” or “I’m learning to be smarter with my time this week.”

At this point, we’ve got a strong sense of self-control, and no longer feel so pulled and tugged by the uncertainties in our environment.

If you’re feeling frustrated by your lack of control, let go of certainty and think about how you might experiment. Say it out loud, to encourage other people to think that way too.

Climb the ladder

No-one spends their whole life above the line - like it or not, everyone feels defeated or overwhelmed sometimes. That’s OK. What we’re looking for is a nudge in the right direction. By watching how we speak - and paying attention to the language of others - we can use our words as both a clue and a lever. Notice how you’re speaking, notice how you’re thinking, and try to move up a single level.

If you spend 10-20% of your time using experimental language, and more than 50% of your time focusing on what you can choose or control, you’ll notice the difference in your mindset, attitude and productivity in no time. Good luck!


IN SUMMARY

  • The way we speak is a good clue to the way we think

  • We can hack our language to improve our attitude

  • Move away from passive and reactive language

  • Try to focus on what you can

    • Do,

    • Choose, or

    • Experiment with.


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