6 Practices to Change Your Language and Get More of What You Want


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Language is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow.
Oliver Wendell Holmes

Language is more than black ink on a piece of paper or words casually said. Language defines the way we see ourselves, others and the world. It influences our mood, our thoughts, and perspective. It defines the way we see, we interact, and what we believe.

Here are some examples of how language can impact our perception.

  • Mandarin Chinese- doesn’t have a past or future tense
  • Greek- three different words to communicate different types of love, compared to English with one word
  • Spanish- describes objects with gender assignment

When I first learned this I was fascinated. In the same way that different countries have different languages and dialects, each company has its own language that shapes our behavior. One of the simplest ways to get to know someone's frame on the world is to listen to the words and language that they use. Changing our language is a way to start to subtly change our attitudes, assumptions, and approach to the world. Here are some examples.

Lack Positive
I should work out. I'm going to work out.
I shouldn’t eat cake. Well unless it’s gluten-free, then maybe. Thanks, I’d rather have fruit instead.
I’m too busy. I can get this done.
I never get it right. I always get it wrong. Up until now, I didn’t get it right.

My wish is for each of us to live a life that is empowered, inspired and fierce. I want to wake up every morning and say yes, hell yes, or fuck yes! Living a life like this requires a certain psychology, language, and belief. It means using validation and empowering language, versus slipping into victim mode and blaming. Living like this requires emotional certainty and language that supports that.

From what I see most days we are focused on:

  • what we don’t want
  • what we didn’t get
  • what happened to us
  • what we should do

Versus:

  • what do you want
  • what did you get, what did you decide
  • what we did
  • what you want to do/ what you will do / what you choose to do

Before you jump into shame for using this language, let’s have some compassion that our brains are programmed to react more strongly to stimuli it deems negative. When watching a brain scientists can see a greater surge in electrical activity. Our attitudes are more heavily influenced by downbeat news than good news. We are designed this way for a good reason—to keep us out of harm's way. Couple this with the messages we grow up with as children, we learn to mimic our caregiver's language and validation patterns. Either way, we have an opportunity to hack our own mindset and organizational cultures by changing our language.

Below are 6 ways we can change our language to change our thoughts.


1. Focus on what you want.

What do you want?

One of the top reasons someone starts coaching is that they don’t know what they want or they do but are scared to go for it and don’t know how to get out of their own way. In summary, they don’t know what they really want. It’s often easier to talk about what we don’t want. The problem is that’s where the conversation stops and that’s just the first step. If you are stuck on what you don’t want, this is a great time to talk to a coach who can help you be curious enough to hear what you do want.

For example, I don’t want to work on this project today. I hear you’d rather work on something else today. What would you like to do? To get to what we want, we need to validate what someone doesn’t want. Giving them permission to not want something they probably feel like they should do. When someone said they don’t know what they want, they often know a lot. They may not know what, but they know how they want to feel. With our example someone may not want to work on the project, instead, they want to feel relaxed. The goal is helping them choose what would help them feel relaxed, even finding a way to feel relaxed while doing the project.

The goal is to move from a place where we feel like life is happening to us to a place of empowered choice.


2. Find your could.

I should…. When I hear the word should I have a picture of an old grandma grabbing the ear of a child and dragging them to do their chores. They are kicking and screaming. They don’t want to go. The word should is a flag that there is resistance to the action they should be doing. When I’m personally told I should do something, my inner rebel cocks her hip and sais well make me.

Should is a handy verb as it easily implies authority with an undercurrent of blame and rightness. When I teach and the word should crosses my lips, a little part of me cringes. Be on the lookout for should. It's an opportunity to check for resistance and maybe find a more empowering point of view.


3. Open up curiosity with How, What & When.

Open-ended questions invite us into curiosity. Instead of a simple yes or no answer, there’s an opportunity for deeper dialogue and exploration. How, what and when questions allow our team members to explore their own thinking and reasoning. They also allow us to better understand their capability and completeness of thinking. On the other hand, yes or no. It’s best to avoid “why” questions as they can seem judgmental and accusatory.

4. We all need validation & encouragement.

To feel safe to take risks and live into our highest potential we all need validation and encouragement; however, it’s not often we get it. By validating experiences and feelings we give ourselves and others permission to feel, think and be however they are. When someone comes to us with a complaint we tend to commiserate with them, say I’m sorry, or give the advice to help them fix their problem. Instead, try validation and play the role of a coach to bring out someone’s genius to find their own calm and resolution.

In my experience women aren’t often validated and if they are it’s difficult for them to accept. They think they are being humble and polite; however, they deflect and explain feedback because they are uncomfortable. The compliment they just received doesn’t match their internal story of themselves so they dodge it. When you see a woman whom you have a good relationship with doing this, do them a favor and share what you saw them do and the impact it had on you. Ask for a redo and give them the compliment again. Give them a moment to feel the feedback. Another approach is to provide detailed feedback about what they did, how they did it and the impact. By tying the feedback to their actions versus them they may take the compliment easier. Last but not least, I encourage you to write encouragement in an email.

Here’s a list of my favorite validation phrases to help you get started.

  • It sounds like you feel [feeling] after [event]. Do I have that right?
  • It's understandable that you’d feel [feeling] after [event].
  • It makes sense that you’d feel [feeling] after [event].
  • It’s [strength you see] to [action].

5. Say thank you and stop. Stop apologizing for your presence.

Did you know?

  • Women use 13k more words a day than men.
  • Women are storytellers and tend to ruminate re-reviewing their lives analyzing what went wrong.
  • Unlike men who attribute something going wrong to circumstance, women internalize their guilt into shame making themselves wrong for what happened.

These facts lead to two habits it’s time for women in the workplace to change: over-explaining and apologizing.

In an attempt to prove themselves and demonstrate their thinking women spend more time detailing their thought process and the work they did to reach a conclusion.  versus stating a hypothesis and what was learned. This is often a way a women’s nervousness and doubt are externalized at work. If you work with a woman who tends to over communicate validate their knowledge and provide them feedback on how to be more concise. When they are more concise or when they try, validate them again.

The second tendency women have is to apologize and hold themselves back in very subtle ways. Here are some common phrases we use to excuse and explain.

  • I’m sorry.
  • I don’t, I can’t, I shouldn’t.
  • I got lucky.
  • I was in the right place at the right time.
  • It’s because…
  • If I can do it, anyone can.
  • They must let anybody in.
  • I had a lot of help.
  • They’re just being nice, that’s all.
  • It's just...
  • I worked really hard. (If they only knew I’m exhausted and barely hanging on.)

These phrases signal that a woman is holding herself back. When you hear them is a good time to encourage and validate them. Try two times because the first they may not hear it.


6. Minimize & maximize with care.

Hidden in our language are words that can be best described as modifiers, or minimizer and maximizers. Minimizers diminish a subject and maximizers accentuate the subject. Common minimizer examples are little, kind of, small, just, never, and sort of (such as a little angry and a small problem). Common maximizers examples are really, very, and always (such as really angry and very good). Depending on the context and tone, minimizers/maximizers can discount someone’s experience. These words tend to detract in two ways:

  • Minimizers detract from the intensity and tend to diminish the true impact or feeling.
  • Maximizers can detract from the strength of words and do little to help others understand the experience being described. When possible, don’t use modifiers. Instead, lean into a word that better accentuates what you are trying to say or let the power of a word be the word itself. So instead of something being very good, try great.

Exercises

Now that we’ve explored how language can frame our perspective, let's build a more empowered language. Below are some exercises to take the learning above to strengthen your language muscle. Choose one exercise at a time and make a commitment to it for a set amount of time. Once you feel comfortable with it try another exercise. I suggest everyone starts with the first exercise.

  1. Get to know your language.
  2. Observe your language and others for a week. Listen to what you tell others and what you say to yourself to identify what words are used.

  3. Validate. Validate. Validate.
  4. It’s time to flip our internal scripts and to start encouraging those around us. Based on your observation write down some of the phrases you often told yourself and others.  For example, here is of my flips.
    • Before: I don’t have enough time.
    • After: It’s normal to feel stressed with all that I’m trying to accomplish. I trust that I will get what I need done today.
    Your turn!  Choose one word or phrase from last week that you’d like to flip and choose a more empowering phrase. First, validate and normalize the feeling. Second choose a more empowering message. My favorite validations start with “It’s normal to feel…” or “Of course, I’d feel..”

  5. No more minimizing & maximizing.
  6. Practice dropping the use of minimizers and maximizers from your writing and speech. At first it may seem un-natural and tedious. When this happens be compassionate that you are trying something new, and be curious about the word you are using. For example, is something really a small problem or a big problem. What’s tempting you to modify or qualify the problem?

  7. Get to know what you want
  8. It’s a practice to get to know what we want and to be ok having a desire. Remember, often what we want is a feeling. At leads once a day set a timer and take a break to ask yourself two questions. What do I want right now? How can I make that possible?

    Kim-Elisha

    About the Author

    Kim-Elisha Proctor is an Executive Coach, teacher, and writer. For over 15 years, she has worked with companies at all stages of growth and understands the complexity of organizations and leadership that is needed for success. Whether one-on-one coaching, with groups or delivering leadership development programs, her passion is the same: to support leaders to enhance their performance, impact, purpose & well-being to create communities they long to belong to.

    Kim-ElishaAgency, Emotional Health, Lead SmarterLeave a Comment

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