Do you know that it takes your brain twice as long to respond to a negative statement than it does to understand a positive one? It turns out our brains are wired for positive language.
I saw this concept play out a while back on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Dr. Phil McGraw was the featured guest. He said to the audience, “Please stand up.’’ Everyone immediately stood. He then said, ‘‘Please do not remain standing.’’ While all the audience members eventually sat down, it clearly took at least twice as long for them to grasp the direction. I later tried this experiment with my MetroWest Networkers group. The same thing happened.
People tune out when you speak negatively to them. Individuals who communicate with this fact in mind will be more effective, more persuasive and more popular. While people who use negative language are not always negative people, they create negative energy and people begin to view them as naysayers or spoilsports. Replacing negative words and phrases with positive choices is a great way to enhance your image.
This concept also applies to communications with employees, supervisors, clients, friends, spouses, children and yourself. I remember a former boss who would always answer questions negatively. When asked how he was, he would say ‘‘Not bad’’ or ‘‘Could be worse.’’ If an employee asked him a question, a common response would be ‘‘I don’t see why not.’’ All negative, all the time. More positively powerful answers would include ‘‘I’m doing great today’’ or ‘‘Sure, that’s an excellent idea.’’
Even if it was unintentional, my boss’s word choices created negative feelings and set a subtly negative tone. When you’re around people who use positive language, you feel the energy and enthusiasm and are drawn to them – as long as it’s sincere.
Whether I’ve been the speaker or the listener, I’ve seen and felt the effects of negative word choices. For example, when a vendor starts an interaction with ‘‘Maureen, we have a problem with the project,’’ I immediately tense up and prepare myself for the worst. Consider the alternative. ‘‘Maureen, an issue cropped up and here’s how I’m going to handle it.’’ I feel more relaxed with the second approach, more confident that my project is in good hands.
With my daughters, I’ve learned that negative words are less effective. Hearing them fight in their playroom, I’ve been known to shout, ‘‘Stop hitting each other’’ or ‘‘Don’t fight like that.’’ It never works and even escalates the situation. But when I’ve had the presence of mind to say, ‘‘If you girls get a game, I’ll play it with you,’’ the outcome has been peace. My new mantra with the girls when they’re fighting is ‘‘Work it out. I know you can do it.’’ This keeps me out of it and shows them that I have faith in them. (Yes, sometimes I say it through clenched teeth, but you get the point.)
Of course, leveraging positive words to create a better image for your company or brand works for your marketing communication, too! Prospects and customers are generally more responsive to positive language. Instead of marketing a sale or new product with ‘‘Don’t miss out’’ or ‘‘You’ll never see prices this low,’’ try ‘‘Come see the magic for yourself’’ or ‘‘Save 20 percent on all your favorites.’’ And if you’re trying to create that sense of urgency, which negative phrasing can sometimes do, try phrases like “Act now and start generating leads” or “Register today to reserve your place in our course”– and provide a clear Call-to-Action that emphasizes a benefit.
And what about self-talk? As a high school and college runner, I learned the power of positive talk during tough workouts and races. Telling yourself ‘‘I can do this, I’m strong’’ works wonders compared with ‘‘I’m so tired, my legs are numb.’’ For dieters, telling yourself ‘‘I make healthy food choices’’ is more effective than ‘‘Don’t eat that cookie.’’
It takes practice, but anyone can learn to replace negative words and statements with positive alternatives. The first step is simply to become aware of it. Today, take note of your negative language. Tomorrow, try a positive replacement. You’ll be a better boss, employee, parent and friend. Ghandi said, ‘‘I am my message.’’ Positive talk helps make sure your message is a good one.
Content from this post was originally published in the MetroWest Daily News and has been updated to reflect current best practices.