The words we use are far more important than most people realize. They have the ability to make deep changes in unconscious behaviour in ourselves and the people around us.

Marketers, politicians and others are keenly aware of the power of words and deliberately tailor what they say to be more convincing and to bring out the behaviours they want to see in others. It’s in our best interest to be aware of what’s going on around us and how the words we use will affect both ourselves and others.

The Kansas Experiment

In the 1970’s, psychiatrist Dr Erik Wright performed a six month experiment with paramedics. Those in the study group were asked to take three specific steps and otherwise perform their jobs as they always had.

  1. Move the patient away from distractions.
  2. Communicate one specific paragraph, word for word.
  3. Eliminate unrelated conversation.

What was the outcome? The patients who were attended to by the paramedics in this study proved to be more likely to survive the trip to the hospital, have shorter hospital stays and experience quicker recovery rates.1

Word Search

In one experiment2 on priming, Dr John Bargh had participants complete a word search and then to walk down to the lab to hand in their completed assignments. The study group was given a word search containing words that all implied aging while the control group had completely random words.

Then all participants were measured on how long it took them to walk down the hall to the lab. The group with the words implying aging all walked measurably slower down the hallway to the lab than the group that had random words.

Growth vs fixed mindset

In research on growth vs fixed mindsets3, Dr Claudia M. Mueller and Professor Carol S. Dweck found that how they praised children directly affected the success those children had on future tasks.

They found that children praised on their intelligence (ie “you’re so smart”) did more poorly on future tasks, gave up more easily and when given a choice of working on easy or hard problems, picked the easy ones.

Children praised on the effort they put in (ie “you really worked hard on that one”) were more successful, persevered more with challenging tasks and when given a choice of easy or hard problems, picked the harder ones.

A tiny change in wording made a significant difference.

El Faro

In 2015, the container ship El Faro sailed directly into a hurricane and sunk.

Deconstructing the recordings of the conversations on board the ship leading up to this disaster, L. David Marquet outlines how the language used by the captain and the crew had caused everyone to ignore the multitude of warning signs that had signaled the upcoming disaster.

This entire story along with many leadership lessons are outlined in his excellent book Leadership is Language.

What can we take from this?

What’s common about all these examples? In each case, the words we used had a significant effect on behaviour at a deeply unconscious level. Furthermore, it’s highly unlikely that any of these people would even have been aware that their behaviour had been affected in these ways.

I could have given other examples that would be more entertaining such as how a hypnotist can stick someone’s hand to the table or make someone forget their own name. In each case, using only words.

Now consider the language we use every day. Consider how empowered someone might feel when we keep talking about how work has been assigned to them or when the facilitator in the group is referred to as a scrum master.

When we talk about maintaining a sustainable pace and then use language around sprinting.

When we talk about deadlines.

Then consider how we treat people when we talk about them being resources all day.

The language we use is critically important and we need to be more aware of how we’re influencing ourselves and those around us.

Start listening to what you are saying and what others are saying to you.

Recommended books

  1. The Worst is Over: What To Say When Every Moment Counts” by Judith Acosta LISW CCH, Judith Simon Prager PhD 

  2. Bargh, J. A., Chen, M., & Burrows, L. (1996). Automaticity of social behavior: Direct effects of trait construct and stereotype activation on action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71(2), 230–244. 

  3. Mueller CM, Dweck CS. Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1998 Jul;75(1):33-52. doi: 10.1037//0022-3514.75.1.33. PMID: 9686450.