No one likes being ordered around, and what many people may not realize is the impact this kind of communication may unintentionally have on our friends, colleagues, and family around. Like you, they're probably not fans of it either.

In my company, we can and do use negative language, but not on purpose. Most of the time we're unaware of how negative it is. After attending a great workshop with Lisa Bodell (author of Kill The Company), and team from futurethink, we learned ways to speak more positively.

They pointed out we often tell people what they "should" do instead of suggesting what they "could" do. Or we tell each other we like each other's ideas and solutions, "but"...

Bottom line, most of us don't like to be told what we "should" do and we don't like to hear the word "but." Both imply something wrong. The impact of our language ends up turning off the very people we mean to help. If you want to have a more positive impact on your workmates, here are two ways you can reframe your suggestions and advice.

Try "could" instead of "should."

The words "should" and "could" seem to have the same meaning but have a different impact. Using "should" implies "obligation, duty, or correctness" on the part of the listener. It doesn't leave much space for alternatives or discussion. Sometimes "should" comes across as an order even when it's meant as a suggestion.

For example, imagine showing your first draft of a project to a colleague. The colleague looks it over and says: "You should change the colors. You should offer more options. You should redo this." Maybe you tensed up just reading the word "should."

Using the word "could," on the other hand, allows for possibilities. It's a suggestion. We often use "could" for polite requests.

Imagine the same scenario where you show the first draft of a project to a colleague and they use the word "could." "You could change the colors. You could offer more options. You could redo this."

In our heads, we can probably even hear a more pleasant tone of voice as someone goes from the word "should" to "could." Using "could" invites discussion and doesn't come across as criticism or an order. 

Say "yes...and" instead of "yes...but."

Have you ever been speaking with the boss and got some good feedback to start; then you could feel the "but" coming? Maybe you've done the same thing to a colleague or a client? You might agree with what they said and then add the word "but" to show you actually see a better way of doing it. Using the word "but" leads us to negate the good things that come before it. It focuses our attention on the error.

In a mind-expanding workshop from the futurethink team presenters, my company learned the impact of positive and negative language. They had us practice critiques using "Yes...But" and "Yes...And." 

For example, imagine a colleague looking at the first draft of your project and saying, "You did a really great job on this project...but the colors are distracting." Then you leave the discussion thinking the project is a failure because the colors were criticized.

On the other hand, when you give feedback using "yes...and," it comes across as more positive. Using "yes...and" focuses the attention on the good aspects and then makes the listener feel all they have to do is tweak something to make it better.

So try using "yes...and" like this. "You did a really great job on this project and the colors could be a little more subdued so the reader can focus on the meat." By changing "but" to "and," the language becomes more constructive.

We all use negative language every day without realizing it. However, with just a few small tweaks, you can have a more positive impact on your colleagues and clients. So, the next time you give suggestions or advice, change your "shoulds" to "coulds" and your "buts" to "ands." See how tweaking your word choice improves the impact of your conversations.

Published on: Jan 20, 2020
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