People usually know very well what they don’t want, and are also easily able to verbalize that. The reverse is less true. Knowing what you don’t want is one thing; knowing what you do want is a little trickier, leave alone being consistent in verbalizing that in what is known as positive language. Yet doing just that is also good for your self-image.
Possibilities rather than threats
We can take that a step further: People would sooner speak about threats (which aren’t manifest) than about possibilities (which are available). Also, we often tend to understate things in an attempt to appear ‘normal’ or modest. Using positive language is meant to somewhat temper that. In essence it is about transforming all sentences formulated in terms of ‘what not’ into ‘what we want’.
Quite tricky. A few examples:
- ‘Don’t shout at me!’ – ‘I want you to speak to me in a normal tone of voice’.
- ‘You’re not listening’ – ‘I want you to hear my point of view’.
- ‘I can’t take it when you lie to me’ – ‘I’d prefer to hear the truth’.
- ‘You always leave the worst tasks for me’ – ‘Would you please take this task upon yourself?’
- ‘Are you late again?’ – ‘I would appreciate it if you arrived on time’.
- ‘I don’t want to live in a pig sty’ – ‘Please tidy up when you’re done!’
- ‘Like this it will become utter chaos’ – ‘How can we see to it that this runs smoothly?’
- ‘It will never come right again’- ‘What is necessary that we can see eye-to-eye again?’
‘Yes, but’ = ‘no’
- The word ‘not’ almost by definition sees to it that the sentence is formulated negatively. Usually you only need to ask yourself: ‘What do I want instead?’
- The word ‘but’ can leave a negative aftertaste. ‘But’ as a manner of speaking erases everything that went before it; it reverses it. For example, when you say: ‘Yes, but …’ you’re actually saying ‘No’. Often you can simply replace ‘but’ with ‘and’ – that is, if what was in the first part of the sentence can coexist with what comes after it. Sometimes you can simply leave it out completely, especially when you start the sentence with a ‘but’.
- Negative words often begin with ‘un-’, ‘dis-’, ‘mis-’ or ‘a-’. Use the antonym.
- Can versus want: By using the word ‘can’ we are usually being careful. Can means to be able to do something, having the capabilities, which usually is objectively the case. Often it’s not about whether we are able to do something, but whether we are motivated to do it. The ground rule is to use ‘want’ instead of ‘can’, wherever that is appropriate.
Sometimes you will have to resort to negatively formulated sentences; the aim is to transform them wherever possible. As you may have noticed, positive language doesn’t mean changing everything into something positive. To give an example: When a child is doing something he isn’t allowed to do, you could choose to shout: ‘Don’t do that!’ By saying: ‘I’d like you to put that away’, or something like that, you aren’t making what they did right.
Positive language is good for your self-image
So why is it good to use positive language? For one, it’s usually easier for another to comply with your request when they know what you do want. It also does something with you: By wording things in terms of what you do want, it feels better than needing to constantly correct others. The good feeling can also partially be explained using the self-perception theory (Bem, 1972). This theory states that we constantly observe and draw conclusions from our own behavior, especially in an ambiguous situation. What I do or how I do it says something about how I’m feeling. If I walk around the room in an up-beat way, according to this theory I will observe myself being up-beat and draw the conclusion that I am feeling up-beat. So, in the same way, if I word things in terms of what I want, I must be an active, self-assured person. In this way, positive language gives my self-image a boost.
It may also have a positive effect on the self-image of the others. For example, if I express the expectation that you can do something if you want, that certainly will feel better than lecturing you on what you shouldn’t do; or worse, if I tell you what you cannot do or shouldn’t even attempt doing.
The same goes for focusing on threats and impossibilities – implicitly we are then saying we are victims of circumstance, which certainly doesn’t feel as good as thinking we have some influence. So, by focusing on possibilities, challenges and opportunities we look at our own competency rather than at what bars us from doing what we want. As a result, our belief in what we are capable of – the so-called self-efficacy (Bandura, 1977) – is positively supported. This, too, is good for our self-image.
In summary, positive language means saying things using positive terminology: What you or the other wants, can do, expects, etcetera, rather than what they do not. Not only for clarity, but also because it supports a positive attitude, which again has a positive effect on self-image. All the more reason to use it!
- Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review 84, 191-215.
- Bem, D. J. (1972). Self-Perception Theory. In L. Berkovwitz, Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 6 (pp. 1-62). New York: Academic Press.
Excerpted and edited from: Van Alphen, M.F. (2016). Observational Listening – The (Missing) Link between Emotion and Communication. Bloomington: Authorhouse UK.
Dutch book on Observational Listening: Van Alphen, M.F. (2015). Psychosociale gespreksvoering – observatief luisteren in de hulpverlening. Amsterdam: Boom.