Cultivating Positive Language

Last week at the Strategic HR Network OD Conference I had a good time delivering a workshop session on Positive Psychology at Work. I take the time to craft these sessions carefully and have fun with them. It’s important to me that in a setting like this, it’s not just the sage on the stage spouting wisdom after wisdom. I believe that I have some knowledge, but the learning happens at an individual level, so I need to build that in to the session.

I made a connection afterwards where someone asked me – how do I create a positive language about the work I do?

Man. That’s a hard question.

I have no secret to this, or even thought about what that development might look like. All I can do is reflect on my practise and what I do with it.

I guess the first thing for me is being self-aware of the language I’m currently using. It’s not just that I’m generally a positive person, or always willing to help someone see the best of a situation. There’s something more for me about expressing and articulating myself in a way which remains true to my belief. I believe everyone can be their best self, so I have to use a language which supports that belief. If I don’t then I am not being true to my own belief.

Which then means I need to slow down in my speech. Articulating my thoughts into a positive experience means I need to be mindful about the words I’m using, and mindful about what I want to express. So I take my time. There’s no rush. If I want this dialogue to be meaningful then I need to let my thoughts catch up to my mouth.

I don’t not say negative things, I just say more positive things. This isn’t some weird ass ratio thing I’ve got going on. I just don’t like saying negative things. I will when I need to. I’ll happily call a spade a spade if that’s what it is. I don’t deny reality, and I don’t shy away from difficult conversations. I’ll call out bad things when I see/hear them, and I’ll be right in there defending people if it’s appropriate to do so. And sometimes there’s a real need to explore something fully before you can move past it. Even in these moments, I’ll use words which may have a different focus if I think it’s useful. I get that wrong a lot, but I won’t stop trying.

It’s hard work talking positively. So sometimes I switch off. It doesn’t happen a lot in truth, but I can’t sustain talking positively all the time. Instead I’ll just choose to keep neutral. If I have nothing positive to say, I won’t be negative. I’ll just voice where I’m at, and let it be known that there’s no judgement to what I’m saying, but that’s where I’m thinking.

I didn’t start cultivating positive language because I am a student of positive psychology. I’ve been cultivating it for years. It’s partly why I enjoy corporate communications. Most messages can be written well, and written to have effect, while not being boring or staid. If that’s true, why not focus on that? So I find excuses to cultivate positive language in most areas of work I do. I was reflecting on my blog from the early days. It used to be a ranty blog, and although an outlet, didn’t help me be my best. When I started focusing on writing well, and writing for a variety of personal purposes, that’s when I started to enjoy it more.

So there you have it, I think.


Published by

Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

10 thoughts on “Cultivating Positive Language”

  1. Great post, I attended a seminar a couple of years ago on positive language and the power it can have and it made a huge impact on me and how I work. Now I am really conscious of my language and how it effects others and myself.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Jane.

      Yes, absolutely it affects you as well as the person hearing the message. It’s one of those personal development areas which isn’t overtly obvious, and can be easy to dismiss.

  2. You make a really good point about slowing down Sukh so that your speech can catch up with your thinking! That really resonates.

    The point about the formerly ‘ranty’ nature of your blog is interesting too. It’s almost as if when we say the negative stuff out loud we breathe life into it and, like you say, that doesn’t help us to be at our best.

    I’ve been looking at situations through a different lens lately, not seeing them as either positive or negative but as neutral or inert. They only become one or the other once we apply context or meaning to them based on experiences from the past or an imagined future. It’s allowed me to get my thinking right before an emotional response kicks in and the words or actions follow. It’s been an interesting experiment and one that I’m still exploring.

    1. I like the ‘neutral’/’inert’ perspective too. It helps me to explore what is and then decide on the course of action I want to take. And often that action is about my thinking. Thanks for sharing, Bev.

  3. Nice post Sukh. You and I have spoken about this stuff previously – and you shared an observation that this stuff has most power when the prevailing cultural wind is in your favour. If the culture is too toxic – find a way to fix that first, otherwise there’s a very high risk it will poison the positive. Does that make sense? I too favour a more positive approach and there are times when nothing beats a good grrrr!

    Losada did a lot of research into what makes a high performing team. His work – like a lot of research – gets challenged, and something he found was that high performing teams make at least three times as more positive comment than negative. This – coupled with a balanced view of self and others, and a balance of opinions and questions – seems to be an interesting useful mix.

    Cheers – Doug

    1. Appreciate you taking the time to add your thoughts, Doug. And thanks for reminding me about our chat. Yes, you’ve described that really nicely, and for me it’s important we deal with the reality of a situation before we start helping people move to a more progressive and positive state.

      Ah ha, glad you mentioned the research by Losada on the 3:1 ratio. I was aware of this, and it is useful to understand how this works.

  4. Really interesting post and I like the way you reflect on your own learning as you move through it. It was only relatively recently that I discovered your blog and I have therefore read it backwards – by which i mean because you engaged me I started to read earlier posts. Having done so I can certainly see the change of voice that has taken place with your later posts.

    I tend to adopt the “neutral” position when I encounter something negative be that my own feelings or something I have read. I think it’s important to recognise that we will have those feelings/experiences and then find a way to acknowledge them and then align them/deal with them in line with how we want to feel. It can be challenging but finding words that build up, move us forward and help others to move forward is, in my view, the only way to go. If we let the negativity out into the public arena we leave a trace that can impact on how others perceive us and that isn’t good for us or indeed others.

    Does that makes sense?

  5. I really enjoy your posts Sukh. I endeavour to use positive language too and it’s so not about shying away from difficult conversations, they’ll be had if necessary. Simply, there is a choice about using positive or negative language. Thanks!

  6. Having been in the company of someone for sometime who was extremely negative the impact cannot be underestimated. I also believe in the +’s but there are those who only know how to focus on the negative and their language infiltrates in to their behaviour. I love the Twits, Mrs Twit used to be an attractive young lady but she had nasty thoughts and those consistent nasty thoughts made her ugly over time until she became the ‘old hag’.

    An old friend of mine once told me about the power of language with kids….we always say ‘don’t do this or that, don’t spill the drink, don’t fall……’ Etc the focus point of this is the negative word and straight away the child thinks about spilling, tripping or whatever. A simple change to ‘drink it nicely’ as an example means there is no negative focus and I’ve found myself doing this more and more with my two kids. Always enjoy your posts Sukh and I”ll be thinking more about what I say and how I say it (and how fast) in the future. Mike

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