"People will forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel."
This is one of my favorite quotes--often attributed to poet Maya Angelou and others--because it highlights something everyone in business struggles with--focusing on the entirety of the experience rather than one isolated activity.
Even the smallest word choice can have a profound effect. For instance, one study published in the journal PLOS One found that people increased their grip strength when they heard action verbs like, "throw" or "scratch." In contrast, hearing the word in a negative form ("don't throw" and "don't scratch") had a negative effect.
Choosing the right words is not always easy. We often don't realize that we say something negative until after the fact. How can you learn to use more positive language with co-workers, team members, and clients? Here are four strategies I have found that help me avoid negativity and create a more upbeat message.
1. Focus on what you can do.
What is the difference between "I can't get that project completed before Friday" and "I'll prioritize my work, so I can finish the project by Friday. The former states what you can't do (a negative response) while the latter focuses on what you can do (a positive response).
I have found this approach also helps when my team has too much on their plate. We discuss which tasks have the most immediate priorities. The process helps alleviate stress by emphasizing what can be done now and creates an environment of forward thinking.
2. Make compliment sandwiches.
This technique offers constructive feedback without emphasizing criticism that people may take the wrong way. For example, when giving an evaluation of someone's performance, begin with the positive aspects, then highlight what you would like to see improve and why, and end with a strategy on how to meet that goal. I have found that giving your team reassurance creates an interaction that is a more positive experience for both parties.
3. Use inclusive pronouns.
It's easy to depersonalize teams when you refer to them as a single entity. However, using pronouns like "we," "us," and "our" emphasizes collaboration. So instead of saying, "The accounting department is looking for a new hire," say "We are looking to hire an accountant" or "Our accounting team is looking to hire." It's a subtle change, but when you humanize the people around you, it signals that everyone is collectively working together, which increases morale. Additionally, it brings down the walls built around job titles and departments.
4. Pause before you speak.
We often speak too fast and give feedback before we are ready. Before responding, always take an intentional pause, breathe in and out, and organize your thoughts before speaking. Or better yet, wait until later, or even the next day, in order to fully process any negative emotions.
Never underestimate the power of words. Saying the right words, the right way, can have a profound impact on everyone around you and be the difference between whether you inspire people or deflate them. The choice on the environment you create is up to you.