Our use of language affects our lives much more than we think. Even though we might not think twice about it, the words we choose in our everyday language has great power in shaping our lives. I touched on using proactive language briefly in my draft on choice, and in this draft, I’ll go into more detail as to why the words we use every day matters a great deal and how we can use it effectively in our personal and work lives.

There are a few reasons why the language we use matters:

We should be careful about the language we use since the words we use with ourselves (and with others) affect our emotional state a great deal. The words we attach to our experience eventually becomes our experience. In other words, we need to change our words to change our lives.

How we use language not only affects our emotional state, but also determines our levels of self-esteem (amount of self-worth) and self-confidence. It can mean the difference between being the master of our own lives and acting like a victim with no control.

In business, our use of language can mean the difference between keeping our relationships and losing them. This is key because our language controls our interactions, our interactions influence our relationships, and relationships determine business.

Here are some ideas for using language proactively:

Never start a conversation with “No”, “But”, or “However”. This is a big one. You would be surprised how often we use it in our language. When we start a conversation using one of these words, no matter how friendly our tone might be or what we might say to acknowledge the other person’s feelings, it always means, “I am right, and you are wrong”. Once that is said, nothing good can come from it. From that point on, it is no longer about communicating ideas, but a psychological war that needs to be won by both parties at all costs.

Another variant of this example is: “That’s true, however…”, which would mean that you don’t think it’s true at all. Instead of using “Yes, but…” in your responses, a better alternative is to use, “Yes, and…” or “Thank you”. It is particularly important to avoid using these words with your team when they are trying to come up with ideas. I covered this in Divergence and Convergence and Explore, Evaluate, and Execute.

Stop beginning sentences with self-limiting beliefs: “I’m struggling with…,” or “I’m never able to…”. Regardless of what we say to ourselves, we are right. Instead, reframe it to say, “I need help with…” or “How do I get better at…”. This is the language of proaction. It is the difference between someone who is in control of their life and a helpless victim.

As the late Stephen Covey observed, by using reactive (negative) language, we absolve ourselves of responsibility. Here are some examples that he shared:

  • “If only my spouse was more loving”. This translates to: I’m dependent on someone else’s behavior for limiting my effectiveness.
  • “I can’t do that. I just don’t have the time”. Something external to me (limited time) is controlling me.
  • “He makes me so angry”. I’m not responsible. My emotional life is governed by something outside of my control.

Here are a few more of his examples of reactive versus proactive language:

  • “There is nothing I can do” versus “what are my alternatives”.
  • “He makes me angry” versus “I am in control of my own feelings/emotions”.
  • “That’s just how I am” versus “I can choose a different approach”.
  • “I have/need to do this” versus “I choose to do it”.

In all of these examples, you’ll see that instead of finding reasons or excuses why we can’t do something, we are looking for ways that we can do something. I can be more proactive/creative, etc. The spotlight shifts from inaction to action.

Stop saying things like “I have/need to…” and instead say, “I choose to…”. You don’t have to do anything (nor can others make you do things) unless you want to, and it implies a few things. Such as, “I don’t want to do it and I don’t have a choice. If it was my choice, I would rather not be doing it. Others are making me do it against my will. If I don’t do it, I’ll have to face the consequences. If I do it, I’ll hate myself for it”. We talk like this when we have forgotten that our ability to make choices can never be taken away. It can only be surrendered.

Stop talking/complaining about things you can’t change. As Mark Twain said (and I paraphrase), we all talk about the weather, but we don’t do anything about it. Learn to accept or change things. That is a choice that only people with a proactive mindset can make.

Choose positive and inspiring language. Here are a couple of examples:

Instead of talking about things that you don’t like, talk about things that you do like. For instance, instead of saying some food is unhealthy, talk about the foods that are beneficial to your health. So instead of saying, “I don’t like food A”, say, “I prefer food B”. Of course, the application of this idea goes beyond food.

Avoid discussing people’s faults and misbehavior or their personal relationships. This goes back to always being loyal to those who are absent. By talking positively about those who are absent, we retain the trust of those who are present.

If we talk about “being pissed off” all the time, guess what, we’re going to be pissed off all the time. Instead, try saying, “Let’s deal with it in a different way”. Make note of words that make you pull back, give up, or feel frustrated and/or overwhelmed. Instead, use words that move you forward.

Default to the positive. Learn to focus on the positive in any situation no matter how difficult. For instance, look at “problems” as opportunities/challenges for growth/improvement.

At work, this might mean starting things without worrying about finishing them. As I wrote in my draft on Start:

For instance, when you’re given a big project, instead of telling yourself that you have to do it, you could say that you choose to do it. This goes back to being proactive about your life.

Instead of worrying about finishing the project, you can ask when you can start. Instead of starting big and late (doing things at the last minute), you can start small and early. Instead of thinking that this project is big and important and getting hung there, think of one small step you can take to move it forward. Instead of saying it must be perfect, say that you can be perfectly human. Instead of saying that you have no time for Play because you need to do this project first, say to yourself that you must make time for Play.

How we use language matters a great deal in our everyday personal and work relationships. It is imperative that we take the proactive approach instead of acting like we are victims (through our use of reactive language) and that our life is not within our control. Language is one of the keys to shifting our minds, bodies, and results. It can have a huge impact on our outlook and ultimately our success.

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