Imagine you are the pilot of a flight that has been delayed by six hours. You’re in the cockpit, preparing to speak to a plane full of tired and frustrated passengers over the Tannoy. What feeling do you want to create with these passengers? What will you say?
This is a question we posed to our attendees in our last Unlocking… webinar, which focused on the importance of positive and conscious communication.
We received some great responses – words like “reassured”, “calm”, and “confident”. If those are the feelings we’d want to elicit in this scenario, what language would we use to do so?
We asked our attendees to write down what they’d say if they were the pilot, and to count how many times they used the words “sorry”, “apologies”, or “unfortunately”. Only 20 per cent of people avoided those words altogether. The rest of the attendees used them once or more.
Avoiding negative language
Now, this scenario isn’t entirely fictitious. Recently, a flight I was on was delayed by six hours, and when the pilot addressed the plane, I paid particular attention to the language he used. Interestingly, he did not use the words “sorry”, “apologies”, or “unfortunately” once.
Despite the fact that many passengers may have been expecting an apology (waiting at a small airport for six hours is far from fun!), the pilot had good reason for avoiding apologetic language: it wasn’t his fault. The delay was due to air traffic control.
Had the pilot used negative, apologetic language, he would have been far more likely to elicit more frustration and discontent from the passengers. Instead, he did three things:
- Focused on a solution: he confirmed that his aim was to take off as soon as possible.
- Explained what he was trying to do to achieve the solution: he’d put in a request for the earliest available take-off slot.
- Had a future focus: he ended his announcement by saying he wanted to get everyone back home to London safely.
The reaction to this announcement was very positive. People felt calm and reassured – no one was sitting with their arms crossed demanding an apology! This is the key to unlocking leadership: consciously using positive words that create a positive feeling which results in a positive outcome.
A common phrase used in both business and in our personal lives is “don’t forget”. We might say to our team, “Don’t forget to email that client back!” or to our partners, “Don’t forget to take the bins out!”
Or what about “no problem”? I’m sure we’re all guilty of saying this multiple times per week!
It may seem perfectly innocuous, but language like this has a negative bias and risks being received badly by the listener.
Words like “don’t” and “no” are automatically ignored by our brains. We are hardwired to focus instead on what comes next. This means that when we say “don’t forget”, people hear “forget”. When we say “no problem”, people hear “problem”.
This is why it is so important to be consciously aware of the language we use. Negative language always has a positive opposite that’s easy to switch to, but it does take a degree of engagement and practise to do so naturally.
From negative to positive
This problem is seen in all areas of business, from top-level management to customer service. In fact, in our latest Unlocking Leadership session, we were fortunate enough to be joined by Gavin Scott, author of Finding Gold Dust. Gavin is vastly experienced in creating exceptional experiences for customers, and has spent many years analysing customer service techniques.
It’s incredibly common for customer service representatives to use language like “no problem”. Conversely, what this tells the customer is that there is a problem, and all of a sudden a small inconvenience that they’d called to have resolved becomes much bigger in their head.
Consciously reframing the language we use to sound more positive means we’re more likely to garner positive end results. Consider the below examples:
- “No problem” becomes “I can help with that”
- “Don’t forget” becomes “remember”
- “Sorry” becomes “thank you”.
Not only does this elicit more positive reactions in the receiver, but it’s also much more motivating for our team when we’re a leader using this type of communication. Framing things positively and making a deliberate effort to avoid negative language ensures the people we’re communicating with feel they’ve been listened to. One of the most crucial jobs as a leader is to listen to people’s issues and help them to discover a positive solution, eliciting confidence and reassurance in every interaction.