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Using Positive Language (Article) 
 
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Using Positive Language 

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.  

Overview  

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  
be anticipated.  
  

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:  

        a)      You neglected to specify...  
        b)      You failed to include...  
        c)      You overlooked enclosing...  

2.      Phrases that suggest the person is lying:  

        a)      You claim that...  
        b)      You say that...  
        c)      You state that...  

3.      Expressions that imply that the recipient is not too bright:  

        a)      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:  

        a)      You should...  
        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:  

        a)      No doubt...  
        b)      We will thank you to...  
        c)      You understand, of course...  
        d)      Please respond soon...  
  

Positive Phrasing  

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].  
  

Some Exercises  

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.  

Conclusion  

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.  

 
 
 

 

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