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3 Small Changes in Our Choice of Words Can Make a World of Difference

Our speaking patterns hold so much power, yet some of the words we use do not unlock it. By making small changes in our vocabulary, we can create a new reality, internally and externally, which better serves our aspirations and goals.

Boaz Mizrahi April 03, 2020

Here is an open secret that isn’t shared enough – not every change in life must come with sweat and tears. It seems that despite the heavier habits that are hard to beat, such as nutrition, fitness, or approach to life, changing the way we articulate ourselves is one small bonus that has been pushed aside. But it requires no physical or mental effort, and no app or personal trainer, only familiarity with the effect our words have on others. Here are three examples for how choosing a different word can generate an immense impact, both on our own selves and on those around us. These examples show how walls can be brought down, freeing us through better communication and many other aspects.

1. To open people up to weigh in and share reliable information – switch the word ‘feedback’ with ‘advice’

What makes people want to keep their opinions to themselves, even when they are urged to share their honest input? When facing a manager, lecturer, or other people of rank who ask for feedback, most people prefer to keep silent rather than risk being perceived as being in opposition. In other cases, perhaps between friends, family, or colleagues, we are reluctant to give feedback that may hurt someone’s feelings. Whichever the case, people do not always lineup to say what they really think.

In her SvN article, Claire Lew shares a simple yet clever solution. She speaks of one manager who “heard crickets”, as she put it, every time she asked people to speak up and share their opinions in a meeting. She then decided to apply a different tactic, to encourage them to speak up, and asked if anyone had any advice for her. “The word ‘feedback’ carries a lot of baggage”, Lew explains, “To some, they automatically associate it with a ‘critique’ or something negative. It can seem scary and formal”.

On the other hand, the word ‘advice’ is much more welcoming, obliging, and bridging. Why? “When you ask for advice, it’s an invitation”, Lew says. “You’re signaling that another person has expertise or knowledge that you find interesting and valuable”. It also slightly plays on people’s need to feel they are necessary, and lends them a sense of importance and meaning.

2. To enable a future horizon – swap “I don’t know” with “I’ll find out”

There are many things we don’t know. That’s just the reality of it. But this doesn’t mean we can’t know them. When we are asked about information we don’t have, we tend to answer from the perspective of our current situation, and say – we don’t know. But, to the listener, these words signify an impasse that can be quite stressful for them. They may then have to ask you to go out and find an answer, or even have to search for it themselves.

“I’ll find out” sends the message that you have diligence, know how to work, and are engaged
SFIO CRACHO / shutterstock

In her Business Insider article, Kat Boogaard offers a simple way to detour this impasse. Instead of talking about the current situation, you can shift your answer to the future, and say “I’ll find out”, or “I’ll check”, which enable your conversational partner to see an open path. Even if it extends the path towards the answer, at least it isn’t a closed-off route. Also, it shows that you are taking initiative, making an effort to help or fulfil your duty.

In cases where this option is irrelevant to the question, Boogaart suggests some alternatives. For example, you can say “I have that same question” – a phrase that offers a sense of sympathy that is more practical than emotional, letting others know that you are also looking for an answer, inviting them to find it together. Another option is saying My best guess is…”, sending out the message that you don’t have the information, but are trying to help by relying on previous knowledge or personal experience. Ultimately, if we do not know, why not just say “Why don’t we ask…”, and essentially provide a solution by sourcing out the question to someone specific who may know.

3. To focus on helping instead of needing help – replace “sorry” with “thank you”

To explain this idea, we should first start with Haley Nahman’s story in her Man Repeller article, which we can all identify with based on our experience going out with friend, or finding a seat at a festive holiday dinner, when the entire family sits at the table. Nahman describes being out with friends in a crowded bar, squeezed around a small table in the back, when suddenly one of her friends said that another person would soon be joining them, a new guest with whom Nahman was not acquainted. “The uptight side of me, which I work very hard to hide, quietly panicked”, she describes. “Where will he sit? Are the servers going to get mad?” When he arrived, Nahman had to vacate her comfy seat, so he could sit in the spot close to their mutual friend, now found herself sat in an uncomfortable place in the corner.

This mutual friend kept apologizing to Nahman, over and over again, for downgrading her seat. Nahman answered, “my voice two octaves above honesty” as she describes, that it was okay, until this friend was reassured. The next day, after reappraising the moment, it became clear to Nahman that “the interaction had been about absolving her [the friend’s] of guilt rather than acknowledging the favor I was doing her,” Nhaman said.

Maybe because it’s a story from NY nightlife, it sounds like something from Seinfeld: one small and insignificant moment is comically blown up to the proportions of a crisis or tragedy. Yet, even if the story expfresses the idea quite clearly and humorously, it is just a stage prop. There is a critical principle hiding here, speaking volumes about the way we approach the world. Do we honor those who help us, or do we prefer to put our conscience at ease for the fact that we needed help? Hahman presents additional examples, where words can be chosen strategically to verbalize our respect for others: “‘Sorry I’m late’ could also be ‘thank you for waiting’. ‘Sorry to vent’ could also be ‘thank you for listening’”. There are so many such example, depending on context and content. The point is to place the attention where it belongs, exchanging the need you had, in favor of the action and response that took place.

Vintagepix / Shutterstock.com