— James E. Lukaszewski, ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA
In Part I of this series, I made the point that there is way too much negative language used and that the metaphor about sticks and stones is flawed. On the contrary, words have far more power to damage and victimize personally and over longer periods of time than virtually any kind of physical violence.
This subject reveals, especially among leaders, senior people and attorneys, the personal need to have, at least in reserve, tough, aggressively negative language that “clearly repositions, reconstructs or redirects conversations.” The reality is that language choices by authority figures determine the tone, temperature, the attitudes and the atmosphere for successfully achieving agreement.
This blog has three purposes:
- To further define the damage negative language causes.
- To understand why we need to be more negative-language averse as leaders, managers and advisors.
- To realize that in addition to victimization, the most serious impact negative and colorful language creates is an atmosphere of negative confusion, which messes up the quality and the effectiveness of verbal and written communication.
To be more specific
1. Negative language is non-communication
If I say to you, “That’s not how we do it,” or, “That’s meaningless,” what have you learned? Can you proceed? I’ve probably put you off because my comment is somewhat accusatory, like you should have known more than you did.
2. Negative language is destructive
If I say to you, “You’re wrong,” you are now a victim. I haven’t provided information that would help you know what is right. Even if I follow that comment with some useful, positive information, chances are that you’ll have difficulty hearing it because I have seriously insulted or hurt you, and you are licking your wounds rather than listening to me.
3. Negative language causes defensiveness (yours)
Once I’ve told you, “That’s not the way we do it,” or, “It won’t work,” if I care about you at all, I know I haven’t communicated, I know it’s not what you wanted to hear, therefore I feel that I must now do something to overcome my non-communication. This is what defensiveness is, a feeling of inadequacy brought on primarily by incomplete, negative, stupid or erroneous comments or responses.
4. Negative language drives communication out of control
As soon as I say, “That’s not the way we think,” what are your options as a victim responder? You’ll ask me why not, why isn’t it, and why won’t we? These are all negative responses, which drive communication even further off any positive, productive track. Your situation is now sliding into the verbal ditch. You are out of control, and you can feel it.
5. Negative language causes a kind of intellectual deafness
Reporters, protestors, activists, lawyers and angry opponents seem to need negative language. In fact, the fulfillment of their mission revolves around the use of it. When they get negative language in response, the communication immediately becomes driven by it and its power to continue, even expand conflict. It is impossible to be positive enough to punch through the negative shield, once it has formed.
The news media especially use negative language as a means of over-balancing almost any positive news or information:
- Man Lands On the Moon, Cost Overruns Mar the Occasion
- Life-Saving Medication Introduced Today in Cleveland, 17 Deaths During Clinical Trials Raise Questions
- Religious Icon Rises from The Dead, Relationship with Prostitute in Previous Life Under Investigation
6. Negative language prevents closure
Negative language is used in the mistaken belief that a negative response somehow brings closure to allegations, assertions, and negative questions. The actual affect is just the opposite.
Besides, when challenged or insulted, we tend to want to strike back because it feels so good. I refer to this as testosterosis, an emotional state affecting both men and women when their favorite ideas are assaulted, questioned, or impugned.
While negative language can seem responsive, the recipient automatically understands and senses important aspects of who you are, where you are, how you are feeling, and whether or not you can actually win the argument. You are uncomfortable, defensive, non-communicative, and have no idea how to accommodate or win.
7. Negative language blocks victory
Victory is supposed to be a positive event. If you haven’t counterintuitively defined victory, there is no language strategy that will get you there. Or, to say it positively, define victory and you’ll be able to structure a verbal and written strategy to achieve it.
8. Negative language weighs more than positive language
Communicators began seriously noticing the impact power of negative language and commenting on it some 20-25 years ago, as the environmental movement emerged with the expansion of public meetings and public discourse to answer concerns the public had about environmental threats and damage. Organizations, companies and perpetrators who defend their actions by describing critics negatively or talking negatively about others, see immediate negative reaction. It takes five times the level of positive language to begin to remediate the problems caused by any negative approach. And there’s no guarantee due to the powerful nature of negative language.
9. Native language is stickier than anything.
The use of negative language with humans under any circumstances risks that language remaining with the person who was attacked literally for the rest of their lives. The stickiest kind of negative language is the language of criticism. When criticism is used as a method of communication or correction, it is always received negatively and the attacker is always remembered as insulting, invasive, irritation and arrogant.
Avoid criticism at all costs. The staying and sticking power of criticism is, in my experience, almost impossible to overcome.
The Lexicon of Attack Words
From the earliest stages of my career, I’ve spent a great deal of time coaching executives and analyzing their performance in a variety of confrontational settings, from financial presentations to media interviews, to lectures, to lectures, to contentious communication with employees. In these venues, the major interaction with leaders, managers, and lawyers is through questions and answers.
I quickly learned that are generally three kinds of questions that get asked these days:
- Killer Questions: Those questions that irritate, agitate, humiliate and eviscerate.
- Questions You Would Love to Respond to If Only Somebody Would Ask You
- Google Questions: Observations, inquiries and opinions, as well as questions from various web-based platforms.
I also learned that there were generally three kinds of answers responders would generate:
- Abrupt, agitated, negative and combatively emotional responses to Killer Questions.
- Longer, defensive responses that were invariably interpreted, misinterpreted, partially used, out-of-context, and contorted and distorted, depending on the listener’s capacity and point-of-reference.
- Calm, constructive, positive, declarative language in 35-150 words (20 seconds to 1 minute in length).
Over time, I realized that that there was a lexicon of trigger words. The lexicon appears in the list of words below. It is really a partial list of the kinds of words that, when used in questions, commentary or accusations, energize something malicious, fallacious and almost always create an inflammatory, emotionally negative picture or image.
The benign moniker for this vocabulary is, “Color Words,” but their main function is to distort the truth and to make the truth almost impossible to recognize.
For the journalist, these words are their tools for disruptive, destructive, agitating interviews.
This list is derived as I derive most everything, from actual observation of the impact of these words on those I coach and counsel. These words are so toxic, that I actually developed an alternative set of “Power Words” for people to use whenever they’re confronted with color words. You’ll see this list in a few minutes.
The Lexicon of Contention, Confusion and Consternation: Color Words
Color Words by their very nature are about 95% emotionally charged and only 5% factually or objectively based. Color Words populate the battle ground of debates, disagreements, contentiousness and confusion. The most consistent users of Color Words are the agitated, the victimized, the overly energized world-savers, and the news media.
Some things to keep in mind when reviewing this lexicon:
- Color Words always cause bad news.
- The target of Color Words is almost always overpowered by them and via the need to respond in kind, in return, therefore doubling or tripling the confusion in the conversation.
- Misunderstandings occur instantly because every one of these words carries with it and editorial imagery that is often powerfully toxic.
- Avoid using Color Words at all times. Whatever argument you are making or is being made by someone else in your direction will be lost in the maelstrom of emotional confusion and frustration.
What is it about these words that makes us need to set them aside? Color Words are:
- Always negative
- Always emotional, bellybutton-driven
- Over-the-top with negative energy
- Always completely imprecise
- They generally strike fear and terror into the person who hears one of these words in a question
- Impossible to explain, adequately respond to or contain
- The power of these words accumulates if more than one is used in a question or a response
How would you like to be asked questions like these?
- Just how ashamed is your company of its excessive over-charging?
- Why do you minimize the damage you caused that have made so many so miserable?
- How would you describe the catastrophe you have caused, which has made so many people terror-stricken?
- Why do your customers use the word “ugly” when describing how you manipulate customers?
- Many describe your performance as arrogant, inappropriate and unbelievable. How do you respond?
Power Words are the Antidote to Color Words
The antidote to negative language and highly emotional Color Words is what I call The Lexicon of Truth and the verbal guardrails that keep you talking in positive, constructive directions, rather than stepping in the muck of negativity and spending your time trying to get out.
These are illustrations of how Power Words could be used to respond to Color Word-driven questions.
Q1: Just how ashamed is your company of its excessive over-charging?
A1: The circumstances of problem have been thoroughly investigated by representatives of our company and of various third part organizations. Everyone who suffered has been contacted and compensated for the losses they suffered.
Q2: Why do you minimize the damage you caused that have made so many so miserable?
A2: On the contrary, we have maximized our assistance to those who have suffered or who may still be suffering. We placed extra resources at their disposal, as well as professional help to resolve the issues that we inflicted on them.
Q3: How would you describe the catastrophe you have caused, which has made so many people terror-stricken?
A3: We would actually describe the rescue efforts and the response of the townspeople as a miracle.
Q4: Many describe your performance as arrogant, inappropriate and unbelievable. How do you respond?
A4: We have emphasized our concern about individuals who feel that they have been harmed in some way by what we’ve been doing. Their complaints have energized our employees and our response, which has brought new purpose and priority to prevent behaviors that these harsh words indicate. We have been looking for simple, sensible, sincere, strong, yet truthful and compassionate responses and behavior to make all of these people feel much more comfortable.
The Truth Index
The “Truth Index” sidebar is an approach I developed to help executives and others understand what happens and why their interviews and responses go so badly.
Anytime negative or colorful, emotional descriptions are used, the truth disappears quickly.
The American news media are devoted to using negative, confrontational, and often accusatory language. There is, in my judgement, the mistaken belief that using these powerful, negative concepts is how one determines what the truth is. In order to help my clients better understand the impact of negative language and activities, I developed what I call The Truth Index which scores the use of a variety of negative techniques in conversation, in reporting, in storytelling, that helps develop a sense of the ultimate truthfulness of a circumstance.
I use journalism as an example because it is relentlessly competitive, amoral, aggressive and negative. Survey after survey demonstrates the public’s belief that reporters use deception and practice reckless reputation destruction, and seem inclined to report about others who behave this way, because it seems to be far more interesting than a calm, reasoned, straightforward, constructive approach to information. You can judge for yourself whether or not this list of test questions and scoring is helpful. The higher the score, the less likely the news story – or any story – is truthful.
|1. Did the reporter personally witness what he or she is reporting about?||1 2 3 4 5|
|2. Did the reporter have any specific knowledge about the topic prior to reporting about it?||1 2 3 4 5|
|3. Is the description and dialog of opposing views balanced, equal, and fair?||1 2 3 4 5|
|4. Is the story clearly biased, unbalanced, or unfair?||1 2 3 4 5|
|5. How many emotionally charged, inflammatory, and negative words, phrases, or concepts are used during the interview and in the final story?||1 2 3 4 5|
|6. How does the story content direction and perception square with what the reporter told interviewees before the interview?||1 2 3 4 5|
|7. How much “surprise” material was used during the interview?||1 2 3 4 5|
|8. How do the observations of others present at the same news event compare with and support the reporter’s version?||1 2 3 4 5|
|9. How many anonymous sources are used?||1 2 3 4 5|
|10. Was the reporter insulting, overly suspicious, or disrespectful?||1 2 3 4 5|
|11. Does the headline appropriately reflect the content of the story?||1 2 3 4 5|