Using Positive Language by Robert Bacal
One of our most requested articles, using positive language teaches how to alter language so that it comes across as positive and constructive, rather than abrasive, hostile or confrontational.Using positive language tends to reduce conflict, improve communication, reduce defensiveness in others and helps portray the speaker/writer as credible and respectable.
Language is an exceedingly powerful tool. Whether you communicate orally, or in written form, the way you express yourself will affect whether your message is received positively or negatively. Even when you are conveying unpleasant news, the impact can be softened by the use of what we call positive language.
In this article we are going to be looking at ways you can
communicate in a more positive way that is more likely to elicit
cooperation rather than argument or confrontation. Whether you
are communicating with clients/customers, your staff, or other
government employees, you can use positive language to project a
helpful, positive image rather than a destructive negative one.
No doubt you are familiar with the "Naysayer". The naysayer is the person who often offers criticism of ideas, or always provides reasons why something won't work. The extreme naysayer rarely offers suggestions or alternatives, but is very good at picking holes in the ideas of others.
If you have ever worked with such a person, (or if you are one), you will know that this kind of negative communication is very fatiguing for those around this person. The constant challenging of the naysayer, while it may stimulate discussion, also creates a negative environment, and increased confrontation.
Naysayers don't always have negative attitudes. In many cases they simply use language that gives the impression of negativity. They have not learned to phrase their comments in more constructive, positive ways.
It is very easy to fall into the negative language pattern. Many of us do so without being aware of it, particularly in written communication. For example, it is not uncommon for government organizations to write negatively phrased letters to customers, applicants and those it regulates. Take a look at the following typical government memo.
"We regret to inform you that we cannot process your application to register your business name, since you have neglected to provide sufficient information. Please complete ALL sections of the attached form and return it to us."
While it is polite (albeit overly formal), it is also exceedingly negative. It includes several negative words -- cannot, and neglected, and it has a tone that suggests that the recipient is to blame for the problem.
Contrast this example with a re-written more positive approach.
"Congratulations on your new business. To register your business name, we need some additional information. If you return the attached form, with highlighted areas filled in, we will be able to send you your business registration certificate within two weeks. We wish you success in your new endeavor."
Note that the negative example tells the person what he or she has done wrong, and doesn't stress the positive things that can be done to remedy the problem. The information is all there, but it sounds bureaucratic, cold and...well negative. The positive example sounds completely different, though it contains almost identical information. it has a more "upbeat" and helpful tone.
Negative & Positive Language
Negative phrasing and language often have the following characteristics:
- tells the recipient what cannot be done.
- has a subtle tone of blame.
- includes words like can't, won't, unable to, that tell the recipient what the sending agency cannot do.
- does not stress positive actions that would be appropriate, or positive consequences.
Positive phrasing and language have the following qualities:
- tells the recipient what can be done
- suggests alternatives and choices available to the recipient
- sounds helpful and encouraging rather than bureaucratic
- stresses positive actions and
positive consequences that can
Common Negative Language/Phrasing
If you want to move to more positive communication, the first task is to identify and eliminate common negative phrasing. The following are quite common, and should be avoided whenever possible.
1. Expressions that suggest carelessness:
You neglected to specify...
b) You failed to include...
c) You overlooked enclosing...
2. Phrases that suggest the person is lying:
You claim that...
b) You say that...
c) You state that...
3. Expressions that imply that the recipient is not too bright:
We cannot see how you...
b) We fail to understand...
c) We are at a loss to know...
4. Demanding phrases that imply coercion/pressure:
b) You ought to...
c) You must...
d) We must ask you to...
e) We must insist...
5. Phrases that might be interpreted as sarcastic or patronizing:
b) We will thank you to...
c) You understand, of course...
d) Please respond soon...
If you are going to eliminate negative phrases, you will need to replace them with more positive ways of conveying the same information. Below are just a few examples of positive phrasing.
1) If you can send us [whatever], we can complete the process for you.
2) The information we have suggests that you have a different viewpoint on this issue. Let me explain our perspective.
3) Might we suggest that you [suggestion].
4) One option open to you is [option].
5) We can help you to [whatever] if you can send us [whatever].
1. Pull a few memos you have written. Go through each one word by word, and phrase by phrase, highlighting sentences that have a negative tone. Be alert to subtle aspects of your memos that send bureaucratic or demeaning messages. Then rewrite the memo.
2. In the PSM Supplement (paid subscribers only), you will find a negatively phrased memo. Rewrite it so that it has a positive tone, and compare your rewrite with the "improved" version supplied.
Negative language conveys a poor image to customers, and those around us. Sometimes it causes conflict and confrontation where none is necessary or desired. The first place to start using positive language is with written material. Once you have developed the knack of writing positively, it will be easier to change your spoken language to present a more positive tone.