“It’s been impossible for me to get a job,” the woman tells me, having just been introduced by a mutual acquaintance at breakfast. “There’s just nothing out there. Absolutely nothing.”
Although I have no way to validate her situation, my strong sense is that it is not impossible and that there is something out there. She just hasn’t found it. As I encourage her to stay proactive, I can’t help but think how easily her words could create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The words you speak hold power. Power to create new possibilities or to close them down. Power to build relationships or to damage them. Power to lift people up or to pull them down.
Too often we don’t realize just how impactful our words are—both on ourselves and others. If we did, we’d do far less complaining and far more encouraging. You would also hear a lot less of “It’s impossible to…,” “I’m totally hopeless at…” or “I had no choice…”—all phrases which undermine our power and limit our future.
Psychologists have found that our subconscious mind interprets what it hears very literally. The words that come out of our mouth create the reality we inhabit. Unfortunately, it’s often a negative reality because we unconsciously sabotage our success simply by using language that undermines our opinions, amplifies our problems and chips away at our confidence to handle them.
Whatever direction your words lead, your mind, body and environment will inevitably follow.
If you use positive language about yourself and your ability to learn new skills, achieve your goals and handle pressure, then that’s what tends to show up externally. Conversely, if you’re continually saying things that affirm incompetence, echo hopelessness, nurture anxiety or fuel pessimism, then that will also shape your reality. Over time your world will morph to mirror your words.
Therefore, it’s extremely important to be thoughtful about the words you use and deliberate about speaking in ways that empower and expand rather than devalue and deflate.
The truth is that most people grossly underestimate the power they possess to effect positive change. This is echoed in the words they use to describe themselves and their circumstances. By painting themselves as helpless victims of forces beyond their control, devoid of the power and influence to improve their lot, they render themselves just that. It’s a vicious cycle as they gather more and more evidence to confirm their powerlessness.
Tapping into your personal power starts with building self-awareness of where you are, using what psychologists call “out of power” language. To that end, below are five ways you can change how you speak in order to build your confidence, grow your influence and improve your ability to get more of what you want and change what you don’t.
1. Speak possibilities into life.
Orville and Wilbur Wright didn’t get an aircraft off the ground by focusing on what they couldn’t do, but by continually extending the boundaries of what they could. It’s the same for you. Focus on the things you want and you’ll spot opportunities you might have otherwise missed. Focus on the negative aspects of your situation, what you can’t or don’t want to do, and it will only amplify pessimism, triggering more negative emotions and channeling time and energy that might otherwise have been used more constructively.
If you want more time, talk about the important things you will schedule into your day, week and year (not about how crazy busy you are).
If you want more success, talk about your aspirations and what you can do to make them a reality (not about how big your problems are).
If you want more power and influence, talk about what you’ll do with the influence you already have (not about how no one takes you seriously).
2. Don’t “try” to do something.
If President Kennedy had said, “Let’s try to get a man on the moon,” we’d probably still be trying. There is real power in making a committed declaration about what you want to change, achieve or become. Saying “I’ll try” resonates with hesitation and ambivalence. Saying “I will” declares to yourself and anyone listening that you’re serious about changing the game and what you most want is already a done deal. It’s just waiting to be completed.
Committing with a confident can-do spirit shifts the energy you bring to a challenge and rallies people around you in ways that trying, wishing and “hoping for the best” never will. Try it!
3. Never say never.
Up until Roger Bannister ran a mile in under 4 minutes in 1954, it was collectively believed to be a physical impossibility. So few people bothered to try. But within six weeks of Bannister doing the “impossible,” John Landy broke the record by nearly a second.
Most of us have no idea about what is actually possible. Likewise, when we use absolute terms as descriptors, we fall into what’s known as a “linguistic trap”—confining ourselves to the walls our words create. Hence, words like always, never and impossible can be very self-limiting and should be used cautiously.
4. Never apologize for having an opinion.
Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin coined the term “double voice discourse” to explain the phenomena where people prefaced their statements to minimize the chance of a negative reaction. For instance, “I know I might have this all wrong, but…” or “I apologize if anyone disagrees, but I was thinking, maybe,… ”
It’s little surprise (to this woman at least) that women, who excel at forming relationships but are loathe to disrupt them, are four times more likely to do this than men. But regardless of your gender, devaluing your opinion serves no one and deprives everyone of the value your perspective brings.
5. Beware of labels. They limit.
When used on pantry containers, labels can be very helpful. But they can also hem you in because you subconsciously comply with them. For example, just because you are sometimes lazy doesn’t mean you can’t choose not to be lazy. Just because you failed at something, doesn’t mean you’re a failure. And just because you’ve had a lousy fashion sense doesn’t mean you can’t improve it.
Although changing habitual ways of speaking isn’t done overnight, neuroscientists have found that with repeated practice, you can rewire your brain. That is, your innate neural plasticity enables you to replace negative patterns of thought and behavior with positive ones. How you speak included. Of course, when you slip back into default habits, as you inevitably will, don’t beat yourself up or label yourself as a lost cause. Rather, accept your fallibility and refocus on the positive changes you want to make.
You can kick-start your efforts by asking your favorite three people to call you out each time they hear you use “out of power” language. It could be the most powerful thing you do all year!