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"Think twice before you speak, because your words and influence will plant the seed of either success or failure in the mind of another." Napoleon Hill

When you are the leader, there are no trivial comments. What you say, and how you say it, has great importance to your people - and a great impact on your organization. A "casual" compliment can energize and encourage; a "throwaway" criticism can fester in the mind of the recipient long after you've forgotten saying it. The reality is both your positive and negative words have tremendous power - whether you are aware of it or not. And being unaware is no excuse. Watch your words, and you can transform your relationships and your business.

This Is Your Brain on Negative Words

Have you ever felt that someone's comment was like a slap in the face? You're not so far off. Research shows that the brain responds with lightening speed - and a release of dozens of stress hormones- when confronted with negative words.

In Words Can Change Your Brain, Dr. Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman write, "A single word has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress." A single word can change your brain.

When confronted with "hostile" language (the definition of which varies from person to person: a simple "no" can be fraught with negativity), the amygdala wakes up. This is the brain's fear center, and it floods our body with stress hormones and neurotransmitters. It's harder to think clearly, reason, process language, and communicate. It's harder to handle that client presentation, crunch those numbers, write that report, or lead that team meeting.

Accentuate the Positive

Words can be destructive - or they can be constructive. In contrast to negative words, positive languages strengthen areas of the frontal lobes. This promotes cognitive functioning, spurs us into action, and builds resiliency. That client meeting - much more manageable now. Well, depending on the client.

Despite our love of technology, our brains are still hardwired in much the same way as our earliest ancestors. We're primed to see and react to threats - real or imagined - and we don't respond as strongly to positivity. After all, positivity won't kill us.

As a result, negativity can overpower positivity unless we "repetitiously and consciously generate as many positive thoughts as we can." Barbara Fredrickson, one of the founders of the Positive Psychology movement, recommends a 5:1 ratio. That is, to ensure our business and personal relationships thrive, we should seek to provide at least five positive messages for every negative message.

What does this mean for leaders?

A Change In Vocabulary

It means that when you use negative words with your people, you are essentially affecting their brains. This has a significant impact on their ability to do their best work. Integrating positive language in your business lexicon can help you boost performance, productivity, and engagement.

Does this mean you have to ban the word "No," or that you cannot give negative or corrective feedback. No. (See? I love "no.") It simply means you should give more thought to your word choice when delivering your messages. Consider the following example:

We cannot process your purchase order because you failed to include your department code.

It's not nasty by any means, but it's full of negativity. How about this one:
If you can send us your department code, we'll process your order right away.

It conveys the same message, but it's much more positive. Turns out, you're not a complete and utter failure for not including your department code. Send it, and everything will be fine.

What is "negative" language? According to author, CEO, and customer service expert Robert Bacal, it:
  • Tells the recipient what cannot be done.
  • Implies blame.
  • Includes words like can't, won't, unable to.
  • Doesn't stress positive actions or possibilities.

You neglected to... You failed to... You claim that... I fail to understand how... I must insist...You must do... You should do...

These words erode confidence and undermine performance. Positive words can counteract this. They:
  • Tell people what can be done.
  • Suggest alternatives and choices.
  • Are helpful and encouraging rather than degrading or demoralizing.
  • Emphasize positive actions and possibilities.

We can help you do X if you send us Y... One option open to you is... Can I suggest?

If you're human, and most leaders are, you'll slip up now and then. You'll bark out a "No" or say, "You messed up the purchase order, and now they can't process it." One immutable fact of language is that it is inconsistent and imperfect, just as we are.

The key is to create strong relationships based on positive communications so your people don't fall apart when they hear "No." That, and to think twice before you speak - and then think one more time.


Larry Hart

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