Reading LinkedIn, you might think that the average office is a caring, sharing environment. Everyone adopts a nurturing attitude towards their colleagues. Managers give their staff kind words of encouragement even when they make expensive mistakes.
Perhaps your experience was different? Mine was.
Iâve worked with organizations where positivity and empathy were not among the corporate values.
Encounters with managers in the military, law enforcement, accounting firms, sales teams, and outsourced call centres can be bruising experiences.
So why would anyone tell a Navy chief petty officer, a tax inspector, or a Russian call centre manager that using positive and encouraging language might be a good idea Why would they believe it?
Positive Language â The Business Case
Positive language makes working a more pleasant experience.
Staff are more likely to be productive, stay with the company instead of move on, and perhaps even persuade their friends to work there.
The financial benefits of increased productivity are obvious.
Reducing staff turnover means less time and effort spent recruiting and training replacements, and fewer periods of sub-par productivity from partially trained employees.
Most companies have ârecommend a friendâ schemes. The savings can be substantial. A UK company offers a GBP 1,000 bonus for staff who successfully recruit their friends. Most recruitment firms charge three monthsâ salary for the same thing. This could easily amount to two or three times the bonus, even for quite junior positions.
The frequent use of negative language has the opposite effect.
Resentful staff have less reason to be productive and so earn less for the company.
Resentful staff are more likely to leave at the first opportunity. HR will need to recruit and train more new hires to replace them. This costs more and has a negative impact on productivity.
Resentful staff are more likely to tell their friends and relatives how bad the company is to work for, so dissuading people from working there.
What Is Positive Language?
Positive language need not be sickly sweet. It has four distinct characteristics:
- It tells listeners what CAN be done. Negative language focuses on what CANNOT be done.
- It offers alternatives, choices, and options. Negative language offers no alternatives, no choices, and no options.
- Positive language focuses on the problem to be solved. It looks forward to finding a solution. Negative language focuses on finding someone, usually the listener, to blame.
- Positive language helps and encourages people. Negative language does not encourage anyone.
What Does It Take To Speak More Positively?
Surprisingly little. Here are some examples of negative phrases people use, and their more positive substitutes.
This looks back to the past. It says what the person didnât do without offering alternatives. It makes it clear that the fault lies with the listener. Suppose we replace this with âNext time, try...â? This looks forward. It doesnât point the finger and it gives the listener an alternative course of action.
This is very forceful and puts the blame firmly on the listener. How would the listener react to âIt would be better if you...â or maybe âWe should/must...â? The first option presents an alternative course of action. If the issue is related to legal obligations or safety requirements, then saying âWe should/must...â takes away the sting by emphasizing that everyone has to do it.
âYou didnât understand...â
As a trainer, I try to avoid saying this. If my trainee doesnât understand, then thatâs not her fault, itâs my fault. I didnât present it properly. I prefer to say: âI didnât tell you properly/clearly enough...â
Linguistic Land Mines!
These phrases are guaranteed to lead to fights and divorce proceedings.
This says: âI have listened to you. It doesnât matter.â Try replacing the word âbutâ with âand.â Youâll find that the conversation moves along faster and with less antagonism.
âYou should have...â
This focuses on the past and the personâs âmistake.â It shows no respect for the listener and blames him for not having your superior knowledge. A more positive substitute might be: âNext time, try...â That conveys the same message, but looks forward to getting it right in the future.
âWhyâ questions often sound like accusations. We all remember teachers asking us why we didnât do our homework. âWhyâ questions often put people into âexcuse givingâ mode. They answer the question with excuses rather than properly thought-out root causes. Coaches recommend replacing âWhyâ with âWhat...?â transforming the question âWhy didnât you do your homeworkâ into âWhat prevented you from doing your homework?"
Saying this usually has the opposite effect! It tells your listener that you do not care about their emotions. You just want them to stop expressing them. If you really want to help a person become less emotional, try telling him, âI want to help you, I need you to tell me what the problem is.â If the person shouts, itâs more effective if you take them aside and let them vent. Often, once the person has expressed their anger, they can speak more rationally and will apologize for their outbursts.
Think of the conversations you have had recently.
How many negative phrases have you heard? What effect did they have on you?
How many negative phrases have you used yourself? Now that you know more about positive and negative language, how would you conduct these conversations differently?
Once youâve thought about these questions, get in touch and tell me your thoughts!
When youâre training your staff, your choice of language can have a massive effect on their learning. To find out more about how to train staff, please read my posts âTraining for Non-Trainersâ and âExplaining How Things Work: How To Do It And Why It Matters.â