As we continue to look into the next frontier of human performance I want to look at the impact our words have. I recently did a blog about the power of language, yet I want to dig deeper into this and really focus on how the way we use words, and the quality of our words can impact performance.
Words are one of the simplest mechanisms we have and yet, can be one of the most powerful.
Why do words matter?
Words are the external representation of our thoughts. When we have a thought the part of our brain that controls language tries to find the best possible choice of words to express this thought to both ourselves and others.
Our brains can process information at around the rate of 900 words / minute, whereas we can only speak at around the rate of 125 words per minute (on average). So the words we use are only about 1/7th of the actual information that is going through our brains.
So when we choose to express ourselves through language the words we use give us a window into what is actually on our minds.
Just as our words are a window on what is happening in our thoughts, so words can also be a vehicle to help us change our thoughts.
Using words to reprogram our minds
A common exercise I do with groups of delegates on certain workshops is to ask them to describe their reaction when they see / hear the word failure. By far and away (I would estimate well over 90%) of the words I hear back are negative. We see failure – just a word remember – and it creates in us a negative state that leads to the use of a whole host of negative words as a response.
What words are you thinking as you read this?
Ask people to then evaluate their current state after having expressed these words in response to failure and they would overall be quite low
Next I ask them to reframe the word failure as a positive – so for example failure is a chance to learn, failure is a sign we are trying something new, failure is a sign I am growing etc.
This shift created by using different words actually leads to an upturn in the emotional state experienced by the group. People report feeling more upbeat, more positive, more optimistic etc. Simply by asking them to change the way they thought about a single word.
Words and motivation
A few years ago I ran an experiment with a group of people on one of my training courses. I wanted to see if the use of words, specifically in feedback, could have the power to impact their emotional state, their motivation and the quality of their performance.
I split the group into 2 teams. Each worked in separate rooms and could not see the work of the others. Each team completed 10 tasks (the same tasks) that each resulted in a visual outcome that was to be returned to me and I placed on a wall in a separate space (so neither team could see the others outputs or how they were working.
The only interaction I had with each team was by handing them a pre-written sheet of paper. Each sheet of paper contained the task and feedback on the previous task. This was written and so was not delivered verbally by me – the type font and page background was identical. The only difference was the words used.
Group 1 were given task sheets and feedback that were enthusiastic and positive. The words used were upbeat, celebrating their success and aimed to make them feel like they had pleased me as the facilitator.
Group 2 were given task sheets and feedback that was highly judgmental, critical and full of negative phrases and words that were specifically designed to express a lack of belief in them, their performance and to show a sense of displeasure at the way they worked and the results they created.
There were 5 or 6 people in each group. The first task we asked them to do was to draw a face on a balloon. This task was given to each group in neutral language. Pretty much all of the participants returned a balloon that had a smiley face on it. So as an initial barometer of their emotional state we could argue it was more positive than not.
As each task progressed Group 1 stayed in a pretty positive state – their outputs remained equally positive and they continued to deliver against the expected outcomes and deliver on time.
As Group 2 progressed through the tasks the mood changed dramatically. Each task saw greater negative or more frustrated / aggressive emotion expressed through the outcomes (pictures of volcanoes, the poop emoji and much worse were used liberally). Not only this but the overall quality of the outputs declined (so not only were the images displaying negative emotion but the actual way their were created diminished). We also saw that group 2 either did it very quickly with little or no effort, or were late delivering their outputs. These shifts became more and more pronounced as the task continued. Ultimately some of group 2 even refused to follow the tasks given to them.
This shift took a maximum of 15 minutes and was done solely through pre-printed cards and no direct verbal interaction.
Then results were dramatic.
When we bought the two groups together and showed them the wall with their outputs on, they could not have been more explicit in terms of how they were impacted by this short experiment.
Not only that, the actual emotional state of each group when re-introduced to each other was dramatic. The animosity that came from group 2 towards group 1 and their outputs was striking – within 15 minutes they literally showed contempt for people they had earlier worked happily alongside.
When asked how they felt they expressed things such as worthless, stupid, like a failure, hopeless and so on – significant impacts on their confidence and self esteem.
They all knew it was an experiment. They all knew me and knew that I did not look on any of them critically and yet, through a series of words on a sheet their whole sense of self was impacted in under 15 minutes
Words have power.
How we talk to ourselves matters
One area that most of us could do better is the way we talk to ourselves. When I hear what some people say to themselves I am horrified. I often ask them would they talk like that to their friends and the answer is always “no way”. Yet they feel it is OK to use derogatory and really harmful language about themselves.
What is quality like of your own inner voice? Do the words you use to yourself boost your confidence and self esteem or do they drag you down, criticising who you are and make your feel like you are not good enough?
Changing the language we use to ourselves in one of the most transformative things we can do and has a direct impact on the way we act, the behaviours we exhibit with others and the quality of life we get to experience.
Here is a simple technique you can try if you struggle with a negative inner voice.
Write down the words you would use to describe yourself when you are at your worst. What do you say to yourself?
Now look at each and write down the evidence you have that these words are in fact true – what has happened that proves the truth in the words.
Now consider your best friend and write down how they would describe you – what words would you expect (or hope) that they would use to describe you?
Finally write down examples that you have that demonstrate the truth or validity of these words – what have you done that are examples that justify the truth of these words.
Now compare the two lists.
On one you will have words with little or no evidence or validity. The words will be hurtful and negative.
On the other you will have words that are likely to be overall positive (not every word of course – our friends might also know where we fall short) and they will all be backed up by examples and evidence.
Now start to replace the first list with the second. We do this by reading the second list of words daily starting with the words I am and ending it with each of the words your friends use. Do this every day for a month – never missing a day.
By the end of the month see how the tone of your inner voice changes.