Estimated reading time: 5 mins
When it comes to persuasion, I think we can all use a little trick that’s easy to use.
You know, I think we all have the power to be persuasive. And it doesn’t require us to have oodles of charm or use hypnosis! Often, people are responsive to our instruction and listen to applied logic. Providing, that is, we don’t hit certain buttons in their heads that give them reason to switch off.
It’s because we all apply something that I will call ‘listening filters’ – these are the little voices in our heads that sit like good cop and bad cop on our shoulders – telling us to listen, ignore, criticize, be open-minded, etc. They tell us if something is ‘bad’ before we have a rational reason to suspect it as such. So when we are attempting to persuade someone, we have to do what we can to avoid switching on their negative listening filters!
The thing is, as we all know our colleagues, boss, friends etc don’t walk around with their listening filters advertised on their forehead! So we have to use a tactic called positive language, to play it safe. It’s the negative language we have to steer well clear from.
I don’t mean abuse, or slanderous accusations… no! It’s not aggressive threats or anything like that. I mean language that is far more subtle, and frequently more destructive of our best opportunities.
Here is an example of what I mean.
I could sign off an email with
“Please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me.”
What have I written that is wrong? I am being nice, right? The logical part of our brain would say yes, but our subconscious part of our brain would say no. If we look at the composition of this statement – the component words – you can pick out don’t and hesitate. Two negative words which cause a reaction in our brains when we read it; both words add a negative context to what we read, even if logically they mean a positive when written together! They have negative mental associations. Without knowing it, I am turning readers away from me.
Let me give you some more common examples where I highlight the negative words in red:
- “No problem!”
- “No worries!”
- “We can’t do that.”
- “You won’t regret it!”
- “We won’t start until we get your approval.”
- “I couldn’t agree more.”
- “No doubt.“
- “We cannot see how you…”
- “We fail to understand…”
- “We are at a loss to know…”
- “Don’t wait to buy…”
When I use words like these, I switch on the wrong listening filters in my audience, so persuasion is going to be real tough from this point on.
So what I have learned (through painful trial and error) is this:
Don’t Be Negative When We Really Want to be Positive
It’s so easily done (see? the first word in the line above is Don’t…) I think I still use negative language in everyday conversation; with my wife, my son and my friends. Because negative language isn’t about using offensive, foul or provocative language. It’s using words and phrases that have negative mental associations. A simple word such as don’t turns a switch in our brains that makes us think about stopping, halting, warning, watch out. They’re just words, but they carry meaning.
And how we perceive meaning influences our emotional reaction. Choose the wrong words and you can stop action in its tracks.
In days gone by, negative language was commonplace. A bright spark one day thought it was very good manners to use “I can’t agree more.” in business. People at all levels used phrases like that one all the time, thinking it was the best way to communicate. This is how it was for quite some time, until it was realised that it didn’t work.
What studies and scholars found, are the devastating effects on successful communication when negative language is inadvertently used. The thing is, half of the words used in our everday conversation can be perceived as negative. So we have to be careful.
Is it possible to turn negative language around to become more positive? Sure it is. What I found is that it takes concentration, and it’s possible! I discovered, with a little patience, that I could learn how to structure my sentences to avoid the use of the negative. I haven’t mastered it, but it’s much better.
I tend to replace negative language with words that provoke good feelings and action; I go for positive associations.
Like “can”, “feel free”, “will”, “do”, “go ahead”, and “for sure.”
See the difference? When positive language is used, our communication feels richer, more enjoyable and we’re drawn in more.
Some Great Examples
I’ve listed some more examples that contrast negative language from positive. I found these on THE DICTIONARY OF NON-COMMUNICATION: A Guide for the Impotent, Defensive, Whiny, Unsuccessful Communicator (or, a personal style analysis for those who truly want to communicate strategically) By James E. Lukaszewski, APR, Fellow PRSA
Negative: “Do not hesitate to call.”
Positive: “Please call.”
Negative: “Don’t be afraid to fail.”
Positive: “Learn from your failures.”
Negative: “Don’t let me mislead you.”
Positive: “Here’s what I mean.”
Negative: “I can’t express it in words.”
Positive: “I’ll try my best to explain it.”
Negative: “I don’t doubt it.”
Positive: “I believe it.”
Negative: “I don’t like this.”
Positive: “I’d prefer something else.”
Negative: “I meant no disrespect.”
Positive: “I am respectful.”
Negative: “I see no reason to disagree.”
Positive: “It’s okay with me.”
Negative: “It couldn’t get any worse.”
Positive: “This is about as bad as it gets.”
Now here is something you should try: go over some of your old emails, letters or other form of written communication, and discover what negative language you used, and find out how you might have written it now!