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Watch Your Language

| April 19, 2016

by Jim Bruce

Professor Bernard Roth is academic director and cofounder of Stanford’s, the campus hub for innovators.  Students and faculty from engineering, medicine, business, law, humanities, sciences, and education come there to work together on some of the world’s most messy problems. 
A part of that work encourages students to examine and take control of their lives.  In his recent book, The Achievement Habit – Stop Wishing, Start Doing, and Take Command of Your Life, Roth draws upon design thinking to address situations related to problem solving, personal growth, and interpersonal and group relations to help guide readers on the path to a more satisfying, productive life.  One of the topics he addresses has to do with the disempowering language that we all too often use when we speak. 
In the book’s chapter “Watch Your Language,” Roth points out a number of simple word “swaps” that can often provide a way to remove obstacles that block our thinking and limit our growth and development opportunities.  Here are five he suggests:
Instead of “but,” use “and.”  “But” is possibly the most limiting word in our vocabulary.  It immediately sets one idea in opposition to another.  Yet, we have come to use “but” in place of “and” so often it sounds right.  Using “but” often has the effect of changing a neutral statement into a negative one:  “I’d like to go for a walk but it’s raining.”  “But,” here, will usually close off the conversation.  Opening the conversation provides the opportunity to see and explore options, the obvious one being a walk in the rain.
Further, “but” often disguises the true situation and may unconsciously trick your mind by creating a conflict that may not be there.
Instead of saying “have to,” say “want to.”  Using “have to” positions us to believe that something is being forced upon us instead of us willingly taking on the activity.  This is almost always not true.  We may need to negotiate some aspects of the activity to make it acceptable, but most often we take on our activities willingly.  However, by saying “have to,” our brain preserves the fiction that a burden is being forced upon us.  If, on the other hand, we say “want to,” the mind will decrease the sense of dread and the task will be seen in an entirely different light, often positively because of its value.
Instead of saying “can’t,” use “won’t.”  When we say that we “can’t” do something, it almost always is not really the case.  If I say I “can’t” do something, it creates the impression that something is not possible for me.  While that might be true in the moment, it’s most often not true in the larger sense.  Roth says that “can’t” implies helplessness while “won’t” implies choice. “I can’t set up your machine” is quite different from “I won’t be able to set up your machine.”  The latter leads to a discussion, the former closes the door.
Instead of saying “I’m afraid to,” say “I’d like to.”  Roth says that “I’m afraid to” may be one of the most blocking phrases there is.  The phrase speaks to the person’s fear instead of their desire:  “I’m afraid to ask for feedback,” “to ask for a raise,” “to ask to work on an exciting new project,” etc.  You set your mind to focus on what could go wrong if you ask.  What will they think?  What will it mean if the request is denied, if the feedback is negative?  By saying “I’d like to,” you are acknowledging your desire, and desire is usually associated with pleasant thoughts – feedback as a way to learn what worked and what still needs work, a raise to fund a really nice vacation, a new project as a way to show off your new skills.  Pleasant thoughts and the possibility of pleasant outcomes usually compel us to action and we cannot achieve our goals without action.
Instead of asking “help me,” use “assist me.”  When I ask a person to “help me”, I set my mind to think that I am helpless with regard to the situation at hand.  Yet, that, too, is usually far from the case.  “Assist me,” on the other hand, positions my mind up to see that I play a major, important, capable part of the solution and that what I need is assistance with some part.
Roth’s point with these, as well as other, word and phrase swaps, is that by making these changes in the way we speak, write, and think, we can reprogram ourselves to view perceived obstacles that stand in the way of personal success differently.  His thesis, that these small changes will open our eyes to new options, will help us see when we are ruling out opportunities, and will enable us to explore areas that we were previously shut off from.
Do experiment a bit this week with these word swaps in your conversations.  (You might even want to write the five word swaps down on a card and carry it with you as a reminder.)  I think you may be surprised at the impact.
Make it a great week.  .  .  .     jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

Bernard Roth, The Achievement Habit – Stop Wishing, Start Doing, and Take Command of Your Life, Harper Collins, 2015.
Michael Grothaus, 5 Words and Phrases That Can Transform Your Work Life, FastCompany, March 2016.