The Words We Use

Friday 25 October, 2013

We use so many of them in such quick succession that, at times, we are not fully aware of the words we use. They tumble forth, unchecked, maybe even unheard, yet every one conveys meaning. Even more so in the sentences we form, where position is everything. Listen closely, however, and you’ll find they communicate more than just meaning. They reveal our character, point to unavoidable truths, and exert an unconscious influence on our behaviour.

Take the word ‘try’ for instance. If you are familiar with the drivers in TA, you’ll know that someone with a strong Try Hard driver will be enthusiastic at the beginning of a project or an idea, but will lose energy or interest quicker than others. When someone says, ‘I’ll try’, they are setting themselves up for failure as well as providing a ready-made excuse, because when it doesn’t work out they can always say, ‘Well, I tried.

Here’s another example, with thanks to a piece by Oliver Burkeman. Once again it uses simple, everyday words with an unseen influence. Burkeman explains that if our aim is to establish a habit or show intent in the face of tempting or persuasive circumstances, we are better served by saying ‘I don’t’, rather than ‘I can’t’. One word empowers, the other enforces. Feel the difference between these two declarations:

  • I can’t drink, if I’m driving.
  • I don’t drink, if I’m driving.

Impressive, what we can create with words. And then to be able to track, in detail, the effect they have on us, too.

My third example comes from a client conversation. We had spoken about life’s ups and downs, and that it’s only a life in the middle which offers us peace of mind and stability. We also touched upon how important it is to relish wherever we find ourselves in life, and to enjoy the journey by giving ourselves, from the very beginning, the credit that we will succeed. At one point the client said, ‘If I am calm, I am confident in the outcome.’ I acknowledged the clarity and power of her statement and asked what else she could do with her words to help herself even more.

As she considered her response, I reflected on how much I appreciate my work when such instances occur. When her answer came, it focused on the content of the sentence and how to make it happen, rather than on the possibility of recycling the words. I asked her to turn the sentence around. Now it read: ‘If I am confident in the outcome, I am calm.’ With just ten words, in slightly different configurations, she had made two powerful statements, both of which will, naturally, have an unconscious influence on her behaviour. Ten words.

Next time you speak, listen to the words you use. What are they telling you?


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