Recently I observed a team meeting on ideas for service improvements. A pattern emerged. For every idea offered, one particular person criticised it or gave reasons why it wouldn’t work.

Despite having much to say about others’ ideas, he never put forward one of his own. 

Such chronic negative communication can be exhausting to deal with. While it may stimulate discussion, it creates a negative environment, stifles creativity and increases confrontation.  

There are times when the odds are stacked against us or constraints challenge us, but it is how we communicate in such circumstances that is significant.

Persistent negative language over uses words and phrases that tell us what cannot be done. It relies on words like “don’t”, “can’t”, “won’t”, “unable to”.  It rarely stresses positive actions or positive consequences. It can have a subtle tone of blame using words such as “ought” and “should”.

Positive language tells what can be done; it suggests alternatives and choices; it sounds helpful and encouraging rather than bureaucratic. It is more likely to elicit cooperation. Even when we have to convey unpleasant news or express our disagreement, our words can be softened by the use of positive language without diluting the message.  

The way we express ourselves affects whether the message is received positively or negatively. For example, if we sound helpless or hopeless, even though we might not feel that way, we are likely to be judged as weak or ineffective.

We can help ourselves to develop positive language by:

  • choosing words and actions that convey the impression we wish to give;
  • actively listening to the words, tone and intonation we use when we speak and by editing carefully what we write; 
  • deleting anything negative and replacing it with something more positive; 
  • practising this process until the negative words and phrases are filtered out before they are expressed;
  • when disagreeing with something or someone, giving clearly the reasons for our disagreement before stating that we disagree;
  • offering alternatives or suggesting options and amendments to ideas that we genuinely believe inappropriate or unworkable;
  • asking for support, and challenge, from our colleagues.

Whether we are communicating with clients/customers, colleagues, or family/friends, we can use positive language to project a helpful image rather than a destructive one. The importance of positive communication as summed up by Mahatma Gandhi can be translated as:

  • “Keep my words positive. Words become my behaviours.
  • “Keep my behaviours positive. Behaviours become my habits.
  • “Keep my habits positive, because my habits become my values.
  • “Keep my values positive, because my values become my destiny.
  • “There is no dress rehearsal. This is one day in our life.”