Have you ever heard yourself saying:
“This situation (or person) is just impossible.”
“I’m a total failure at…” or “I’m hopeless at…”
“I’ll never be able to figure this out.”
“I’ll try, but…”
“It’s just such a nightmare.”
If you answered “yes” to any of those, then it’s likely you’ve unconsciously been sabotaging your success simply by how you speak. Psychological research has found that your subconscious interprets what it hears very literally. Your mind and body will follow the direction of your words. So if you want more influence, confidence, connection or opportunities to come your way, begin with what you’re projecting into the world each time you open your mouth.
The words you use hold immense power. Power to fuel your confidence and ambition and power to make you feel anxious and inadequate. Power to make a strong first impression and power to be quickly forgotten. Power to create opportunities and power to shut them down.
As someone who speaks at conferences around the world, I’ve had hundreds of people say to me, “I could never do what you do,” or, “Public speaking scares me to death.” Of course, not everyone feels called to be on a stage on a regular basis, but using language like “never” and “scared to death” can keep people who would benefit from building their presentation skills from even trying.
The saying, “The words you speak become the house you live in,” holds great truth. The world mirrors yourself back to you. If you use positive language about yourself and your ability to meet challenges and achieve your goals, then that is what will show up for you externally. Likewise, if you continually make declarations about yourself or your circumstances that echo hopelessness, incite fear, nurture anxiety and breed pessimism, then those words will shape your reality, too. And not in good ways!
Your language also impacts how others perceive and relate to you. If you often feel overlooked or undervalued, consider how your speech patterns are contributing to how others engage with you. Using “out of power language”—like talking yourself down, making excuses or second-guessing your opinion before you’ve even shared it—can completely undermine your authority, presence and power. Listen to any successful person and you will notice they use language that is positive, precise, action-focused and continually puts deposits of trust into their relationships.
As I wrote in Stop Playing Safe, neuroscience has proven that every one of us has the ability to rewire our brains with ongoing practice and to replace destructive habits of thought, speech and behavior with more positive ones. Turning negative speech habits into positive ones begins with transparency, since we often aren’t even aware of how we’re sabotaging our own success because it’s so habitual. I recommend two things. First, begin by monitoring your language over the next 24 hours. Second, ask someone else to monitor you as well, as our habits are often invisible to us. Then make the decision to replace language that is qualifying, passive and imprecise with language that is positive, specific and declarative—the kind that puts you firmly in command, shifts your energy and, in doing so, makes you someone others want to listen to.
1. Hold yourself powerfully.
How you hold yourself physically—your posture, your facial expression, the space you take up—profoundly, yet subtly, shapes how you feel emotionally and how the words come out of your mouth. So first up, stand (or sit) tall, shoulders back, a light smile on your face and plenty of eye contact with people around you. That will amplify your presence, and it will ensure that the words you say come out in a way that will have optimal impact on whoever hears them.
2. Reframe forward.
Instead of expressing yourself in terms of what you cannot do, reframe your language in ways that express forward movement. In other words, instead of “I can’t, I don’t, I won’t, I want, I need,” say, “I can, I am, I will, I choose, I have, I love, I create, I enjoy.”
3. Avoid absolutes.
Instead of “They are complete idiots,” say, “They see things differently from me. I wonder what they see that I don’t.” Instead of “No one around here ever listens to a word I say,” try, “Some people don’t seem to listen to me. I wonder how I can speak in ways that make others want to pay more attention.”
4. Don’t apologize for your opinion.
Many people, particularly women, will preface their opinion with an apology or something else that minimizes the chances of ruffling feathers. If that’s you, stop. You don’t have to apologize for having an opinion. Just express it respectfully.
5. Shelve the “shoulds.”
The word “should” sounds harmless enough. However, as I wrote in my most recent book Make Your Mark, what often lies beneath it are unconscious and unhelpful social expectations, biases and rules. So rather than use the word “should,” which carries a judgment of better/worse, use the word “could” and insert an alternative option that aligns with your personal desires. For instance, instead of saying “I should have everyone over for the 4th of July,” say, “I could invite everyone here, or we could go out instead.”
6. Express commitment. (Stop “trying”!)
I recently called my daughter Maddy and heard her new voicemail message: “Please leave a message, and I’ll try to get back to you as soon as I can.” I left her a message: “Update your recording, honey, and remove the word ‘try.’” Saying you’ll try to do something provides an excuse for not doing it. So don’t try. Do.
7. Limit the labels.
Labels create a subconscious mental boundary that confines you. Labeling yourself as “lazy” or “disorganized” or “pathetic with money” or a “terrible networker” keeps you from being anything but that and only reinforces an undesired state. Just because you’ve been lazy and disorganized doesn’t mean you can’t choose to be different. Far better to say, “I’ve not been very proactive about this, but I will be,” or “I’ve never prioritized getting organized, but I’ve now decided to start managing my time better.”
8. Rephrase problems as opportunities.
We all have “problems”—what differentiates the most successful people is how they approach them. Got a bad boss? What a wonderful opportunity to develop your ability to manage up. Got a lot on your plate? What a great opportunity to improve your ability to delegate, prioritize and develop efficiency. When you change the way you describe your “problems,” it opens up whole new avenues for dealing with them. Instead of “This is a nightmare,” say, “This is an interesting challenge,” and you will more easily approach it as such.
We live in language. Choose to speak in ways that bring out your best and make you feel more positive about your ability to do what inspires you and to change what doesn’t. If there’s one thing I know for sure, it is this:
You are capable of far more than you think.
Realizing just how capable you truly are begins the moment you decide to use words that embolden you.
This article was published in May 2018 and has been updated. Photo by mimagephotography/Shutterstock