Harness the transformative power of language

Harness the transformative power of language

All our relationships are based on the nature of our communication, much of that communication relies on spoken language, and spoken language is made up of the words we each choose to string together. Pretty obvious, right? But critically it means that our specific choice of words matters - in fact, our relationships depend on it.

A little while ago, it came to my attention how often we use the word ‘hopefully’. Just be alert to it over the next few days (as you inevitably will be by reading this article!) and you’ll hear it everywhere. It comes daily out of the mouths of politicians, sportspeople and other public figures. You’ll hear it from friends, loved ones, work colleagues. It’s a word that creeps insidiously into people’s spoken sentences in all sorts of contexts. And in almost all of those contexts, it significantly diminishes the power of what’s being said.

In business, that’s a killer. Take the example: “Hopefully it will be done by Thursday”.

What function does the word ‘hopefully’ have here? Well now... It strips the sentence of any commitment, it gets the speaker entirely off the hook, it suggests a lack of control and therefore a total lack of responsibility. No resolve, no confidence, no willingness to stand by what’s being said. Wow. Just from that one harmless-looking word.

When we hope for something, we definitely want it to happen but we’re not taking responsibility for it happening. That’s appropriate in contexts where we cannot possibly have any control, as in the example: “Hopefully the weather will be nice this weekend”. But most of the time, in the one second it takes us to utter one 9-letter word, we torpedo any real sense of accountability.

When I noticed how much it was being used in my workplace, I put a friendly ban on it - friendly in so much as there weren’t any stern looks or dressing-downs if someone said it, but rather it would be gently pointed out and the speaker encouraged to find an alternative. One of the main functions this had was to alert people to just how often they used it (boy, did they get a surprise!), but we also wanted to move beyond it.

Initially people struggled as they thought that the job was to find a synonym for hopefully. This was not only surprisingly difficult (it turns out that word is kind of hard-wired!), but it completely missed the point. It took them a while to get that the secret was not to replace it, but merely to remove it altogether.

So not “Hopefully it will be done by Thursday”, but simply “It will be done by Thursday”. Consider the undiluted power of that - a clear unqualified commitment to achieve the stated goal.

Even as the speaker utters it, they are imbued with a clear understanding of the commitment they have made. In the instant of declaration, there is a significant shift in their attitude towards the task in hand. And from that shift, a different set of possible actions arises. More simply put, our actions align with our words.

At first, members of my team felt almost exposed when they didn’t qualify their statements at all. It felt too responsible, almost dangerous. And then the inevitable question: “But what if it isn’t done by Thursday?”

In reality, there may be factors outside our control that do not serve us and of course it is possible that it is not done by Thursday, but that it is not the point. The point is that it is significantly more likely to be done by Thursday if we have declared publicly and without qualification that it will be. And if it isn’t, we simply look at what did not work and we learn from that.

What we say is a huge part of who we are, both for ourselves and for other people. Moment by moment, we create our world through language, and we have the opportunity to create it in every moment with great power.

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