The Power of Positive Language: Only Say It When It's True!

When you are leading your team through a restructuring, your positive influence – call it “vibes” if you like – is what will pull the team together, and pull them through. 

“Negative speech” can be the hidden enemy of your communication style.  Sometimes you don’t even notice you are using it – and it can secretly sabotage a relationship or a key situation. 

Speaking negatively doesn’t only mean using negative words like “don’t” and “can’t”.  It means using words and phrases that remind your listeners of negative aspects of even a positive situation; speaking in a way that is demeaning or disparaging; using words that are sarcastic or derisive; using expressions that suggest to your listeners that you think they are unreliable, disloyal, dishonest, lazy…

Many and varied are the ways in which you can impose a negative aura on a simple conversation!  And you risk doing this without even realising it!

Most importantly, it’s not only about the words you are using, it goes hand in hand with how you are saying it, your tone of voice and your body language.  Your words don’t mean anything if your actions contradict them.

And it’s not as simple as that.  We are living in the real world here, not the ‘ideal world’. Let’s not get over-excited about positive speech - believe it or not, sometimes even positive speech can let you down.  We call it “blind” positive speech – and it will work against you even more than negative speech!

Look at this example:

Cathy is leading her team through a company reorganisation.  She is meeting for the first time with her new team, and introducing two new members.  Everybody in the team knows that two previous team members are no longer there.  In general, companies these days try to avoid expressions like “fired”, “sacked” or even “made redundant”.  “Let go” is usually thought of as acceptable.  But is it positive?  No – and it isn’t even neutral.

Cathy will have to say something about the two team members who are no longer there, as she integrates the two new members into the team.  She runs over some possibilities in her mind.

“Clarence and Deb have moved on to new horizons”

“Clarence and Deb are following new opportunities”

“We felt that Clarence and Deb would be more suited to a different type of environment”

But Cathy’s instincts tell her that none of these will work.  They don’t ring true.  Her team will immediately recognise this as “blind” positive speech.  Cathy’s credibility will suffer; and one of the foundation blocks of her team’s trust in her will be firmly knocked out of line.

Having gone through a few re-structuring programs myself during the days that I was working for corporate companies I have learnt that there is a place and a time for positive language, and a place and a time for reality speech!

Whether your words are positive or neutral – and even when you are consciously avoiding negative speech – ONLY SAY IT WHEN IT IS TRUE!

Cathy won’t gain anything by pretending that people have not been forced out of the business. She has to be transparent and say things the way they are:

“In order for our new business model to start off in a healthy way, we have had to re-think the structure of our team. Clarence and Deb were two of the people that were part of the previous team and they are not here with us any longer.”

This is not negative speak nor positive speak: it is necessary rational and transparent communication in a critical situation. It is reality speech – and Cathy’s team will respect her for it!

Once the restructuring is done and she is kick starting with the new team Cathy can concentrate on positive speech – that will definitely be the right time! 

So, what should you look out for? 

First of all, coach yourself to avoid the obvious negatives in your conversation.  Don’t, won’t, can’t.  And words like problem, struggle and failure.  Even when you’re using them in a positive way, the negative influence is still there. 

Compare the impact of “I’ve got a problem, I don’t know if you can help me,” with “Here’s today’s challenge – let’s figure it out together!” 

Think about how your words might make your listeners feel about themselves – don’t let people think you’re talking down to them, or have no confidence in them:

“Well done. You made a much better job of that than I thought you would”. (“I didn’t have much confidence in you”)

“Some of you may have heard of Peter Drucker”. (“but I’m not really expecting you to be so well informed”)

And watch out for words that imply criticism:

“Your predecessor was never late with his sales report” (“but I’m half expecting you to be late with yours”.)

Learning to avoid negatives in your speech is a process of continuous improvement. Focus on it, be continually aware of it, and train yourself. 

As you progress you will see the change in the reactions and attitudes of those around you – and the change in the way you view things yourself.  And remember to keep the reality in your speech as well.   

Here’s a mini workshop, to start you on your journey: 

Let’s stick with Cathy and her new team.  Here’s Cathy’s introduction to the first meeting of the new team.  How many examples of negative speech can you find?

“I expect you are looking forward to getting an update on the changes we are going through.  As I’m sure you all know, our whole company is going through a change process at the moment. You have heard from our CEO about the exciting new direction the company is going in. I would like to reassure you that our project is definitely not one of the projects that are on the chopping-board, so we can look forward to working together and finalising this project – perhaps even faster than originally planned. 

As you know, the line-up of our team has changed slightly. Sally has come from the publications department, and I think most of you know her already.  Welcome Sally!  And James has transferred from our Boston office, so he is a bit more of a newcomer.  I’m sure you’ll all help James to find his feet. Welcome James!” 

Now let’s look at some of the things that Cathy has presented with a potential negative slant:

I expect you are looking forward to

Cathy is assuming she knows what other people are thinking – this is deprecating – she is talking down to her listeners

getting an update on the changes we are going through. 

the word “changes” can arouse fears and uncertainty in the listeners – Cathy uses it several times!

As I’m sure you know

Talking down again! -  this sounds like a teacher talking to schoolchildren!

I would like to reassure you

using the word “reassure” gives the listeners a strong suggestion that there is something to be worried about

that our project is definitely not one of the projects that are on the chopping-board,

this is classic negative speak!! Cathy is actually mentioning something positive – the project is continuing! – but she has wrapped it up in a negative thought, by using the word “not”, and she has brought the extremely negative image of a project “chopping-board” into the team’s minds

And James has transferred from our Boston office, so he is a bit more of a newcomer.  I’m sure you’ll all help James to find his feet.

Poor James! Cathy is alienating him from becoming part of the group and suggesting that he may have problems in adjusting to his new environment and his new colleagues.  This is demeaning for James, and also it drives a dividing factor into the team

And finally – what could Cathy have said instead?  Here’s a suggestion from me – yours might be different! The important thing is to use positive and realistic speech!

“Today we will be looking at how we are going to be moving ahead.  You all know that our whole company is going through a development process at the moment. You have heard from our CEO about the exciting new direction the company is going in. I would like to confirm to you that our project is definitely one of the projects that the Board of Directors are positively supporting, so we can look forward to working together and finalising this project as planned. 

As you know, we have a new team line-up.  We are welcoming two new members to our team. Sally has come from the publications department; some of you already know her, and the rest soon will!  Welcome Sally!  And James has transferred from our Boston office, an exciting move for him!  James – you’re part of our team from the moment you walked through the door! Welcome!” 

I wish you luck on your path towards positive and realistic speech! 

Diana is the Managing Director of ETACC: 'The European Training and Coaching Company', working with clients based in Europe, America and the UK. Diana works together with other carefully selected trainers to deliver ETACC’s wide range of high qualitytraining courses and one-on-one coaching programmes. Her specialization is in topics such as public speaking, motivational speeches, persuasion and negotiation skills; as well as cross-cultural business skills and international leadership skills. Her programmes are delivered in English, French, German and Dutch. For more information about Diana, see her profile.

Sign Up to our Newsletter

So you enjoy The NextWomen. Why not sign up to our monthly newsletter?
You get a Letter from the CEO :-), the chance to catch up with the best of our recent articles - and some extra things we throw in once in a while.

We try hard for smart reading.