Tips for Using Powerful and Positive Language

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The words we choose when taking to family, friends, co-workers or our boss impact the people around us and shape our future.  The power of words cannot be underestimated.  Over the last decade, while presenting on the topic of interpersonal communication, I have found seminar attendees and students to be intrigued by the potential of how to communicate with power and authority. Interestingly, one does not have to have a high position of authority within an organization to communicate in a powerful way . . . but communicating powerfully may boost one’s chances of increasing legitimate power and authority within the organization.

More recently, while reading Shawn Anchor’s new book Before Happiness, it occurred to me that the most successful communicators are not only powerful but also positive. Anchor gives some great tips on how to ensure that your workplace conversations start and end on positive and productive notes.

Below is a list of “what not to say” as well as examples of “how to say it best,” and finally, the reasoning behind what makes one statement more positive and productive than the other.  Of course, every situation is different and a host of issues (including the organizational culture, audience, and situation) need to be quickly surmised by the speaker. Given this caveat, the examples below address how power and positivity can combine to increase your ability to influence others, climb the ladder, and productively communicate.

WHAT NOT TO SAY: 1a. “I hope our customer likes the new product.”

HOW TO SAY IT BEST: 1b. “I feel confident that our customer will like this new product.  We have made some wonderful design changes.”

REASONING: When possible, use words that show conviction. “I feel confident” and “I’m convinced” are great openers.  Support your statement with factual information that clarifies why you feel so sure.  Avoid “I hope” and “I think.”

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WHAT NOT TO SAY: 2a. “Everyone thinks this project is doomed to fail.”

HOW TO SAY IT BEST: 2b. “The team has some concerns about this project.  When would be a good time to discuss the specific questions that team members have?  It could be very helpful to clarify individual concerns before our big deadline.”

REASONING: The second statement above (2b) is factual and ends on a positive note.  Keep your distance from doomsday naysayers and control your private temptation to be openly negative at work.  The statement above is powerful (since the individual is speaking on behalf of the group) and upbeat (a group meeting to discuss concerns would be helpful.)

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WHAT NOT TO SAY: 3a. “I just don’t understand.”

HOW TO SAY IT BEST: 3b. “Mary, you are so knowledgeable about the upcoming merger and the personnel issues we need to anticipate.  Could we have coffee tomorrow so I could learn more about your perspective?”

REASONING:  Avoid admitting complete ignorance on an issue whenever possible. Most of us associate ignorance with weakness.  Therefore, showing your lack of knowledge is a sure-fire step in the wrong direction when trying to increase your power and authority in an organization.  Instead, ask an informed colleague more about the topic.  Prepare in advance for the one-on-one meeting by having thoughtful questions at the ready.  Your colleague will be flattered (a step in the positive direction) and you will learn a tremendous amount of information in a short amount of time.

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WHAT NOT TO SAY: 4a. “I was wondering when you would be done with that report?”

HOW TO SAY IT BEST: 4b. “As we discussed, I need the report by tomorrow afternoon at 3 p.m.”

REASONING: The second statement (4b) uses direct language, “I need,” to convey a powerful linguistic style.  The opening clause, “As we discussed” softens the demand – making it more positive – by referencing that this deadline was mutually determined in a prior conversation.

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WHAT NOT TO SAY: 5a. “John, I need to reschedule our meeting.  I’m overloaded right now with work.”

HOW TO SAY IT BEST: 5b. “John, can we reschedule our meeting?  I’m excited to get to work on this project with you and I’d like to tie up a few things before we meet so I am more able to focus.”

REASONING: The first statement (5a) is both demanding and a downer.  John, could not possibly feel like a valued team member after being told that you need to reschedule and then hearing how swamped you are with, presumably, more important work.  This does not set a tone that will increase future productivity or current good-will.  The second version (5b) focuses on the upside – how excited you are to work with John – and clarifies how rescheduling will lead to greater focus once you are able to meet.

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WHAT NOT TO SAY: 6a. “Who’s missing?  I’d like to get started on time for once.”

HOW TO SAY IT BEST: 6b. “Thanks so much for being here on time! Let’s get started.”

REASONING: In the first example (6a), attention is drawn to a negative – the lateness of some of the meeting attendees.  This immediately sets a negative tone for the meeting.  Ask yourself, “Am I more interested in condemning the tardy behavior of a few or praising the timeliness of the majority?” Sadly, we have all seen a meeting leader upset by the lateness of meeting attendees or have guiltily made this mistake ourselves (I know I have).  The second version (6b) changes the course of the meeting by taking a positive lead by thanking the timely meeting attendees and rewarding them by starting the meeting promptly.  The second version (6b) shows more authority and power too.  In the first example, the meeting leader cannot begin without everyone in attendance.  However, a leader with confidence and authority is able to proceed, even if one or more individuals are missing.

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Choose your words carefully and try to couple power and positivity whenever possible. I hope these examples help you to transform your linguistic style and your organization’s culture.

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