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Did you really mean to say that?

by Carol Rozwell  |  November 9, 2017  |  1 Comment

Apropos of recent events, it’s important to look at the impact of language on people’s behavior. Skeptics scoff at the notion that using this word or that one changes how we act. Yet the research shows that is exactly what happens. And since language is essential to our interactions with others, the effect is constant and often so subtle we fail to recognize it.

Consider the numerous mentions in typical business communication that employs aggressive words. We talk about:

  • Attacking the problem
  • Executing our plan
  • Crushing the competition

Even presentations with bullet points further the message of violence.

Why is the language we use important? Exposing people to emotionally charged words affects their attitude and their actions. Multiple studies show this correlation. What’s even scarier is that the association between our words and our actions may be subliminal. If we are around people using words that connote aggression and meanness, we will be mean. If we are around people using words that express positivity and helpfulness, we will be kind.

The alternative to using aggressive words is to substitute words that emphasize achievement. So:

  • Instead of attacking the problem, approach it
  • Instead of executing the plan, act on it
  • Instead of crushing the competition, outperform them
  • Instead of bullet points, provide information points

Sounds like a crazy idea to change a few words and affect outcomes? The research bears out the veracity of the concept. And it certainly can’t hurt. So try this for 30 days: listen to your speak patterns and every time you are about to use a word that stirs a violent emotion, catch yourself before you say it and substitute a word of positive achievement instead. Then notice the change in yourself and the people you communicate with regularly. I’m betting you will see a change for the better.

If you want more detail on the importance of words and images, check out Robert Cialdini’s book “Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade.”

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Carol Rozwell
VP Distinguished Analyst
11 years at Gartner
21 years IT industry

Carol Rozwell is a vice president and distinguished analyst on Gartner's Digital Workplace team. Read Full Bio


Thoughts on Did you really mean to say that?


  1. Cynthia Burghard says:

    Three cheers for a kinder, gentler world. Thanks for pointing out



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