Mind your language!

word cloudHow much attention do you pay to the language you use? Try this quick exercise: jot down your answers to the following questions – a few lines for each will do.

  • What’s your life like?
  • How do you see yourself?
  • What’s most on your mind, and why?
  • How do you usually answer when people ask ‘How are you’?

We’ll come back to these shortly.

Words have power

How we talk – to ourselves, and to others – has a massive impact on our wellbeing, and on other people’s. Many communication patterns are the result of unconscious habit, more than choice; we can pick up habits from key people in our lives and the cultures we live and work in. The more we use certain phrases, the stronger the connections we form in our brains to link an idea or feeling to those phrases.

When coaching clients, I pay very close attention to the language they use to describe particular situations, and then bring their attention to that language. I ask them to examine their feelings about what they’re describing; their choice of words often reveals underlying issues. I also draw their attention to how their choice of language affects how they’re feeling. For example, one golfer client talking about feeling overwhelmed described it as feeling that her obligations were like stones weighing down on her, piling up on top of her. I pointed out that she had essentially just described being buried alive. Surprised at the strength of the image, she agreed it was no wonder that she felt drained and low on resources. I asked her to try imagining that these same obligations were like golf balls lined up on tees, and she was going to hit them (i.e. deal with them) one at a time, and asked how that felt. Much better, she said, laughing and relieved. Having illustrated the power of language to change our energy, I encouraged her to examine her descriptions and stories and come up with descriptions that helped her feel how she wanted to feel.

Note that it’s not about ‘correcting’ language, but about recognising descriptions as a choice rather than a fact, and how these choices affect our mood and our ability to achieve chosen goals. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ language; the question is ‘is the language I’m using helping or hindering me?’

It’s not simply ‘right’ to use positive language or ‘wrong’ to use negative language. These are just choices that will have different effects in different situations. I’ve written before about the benefits of a generally optimistic outlook over a pessimistic one, pointing out that negativity is also important, for assessing risk, planning for when things go wrong, etc. Sometimes we feel a need to vent, to discharge negative emotions; to dwell on the injustice of a situation to build up the healthy, righteous anger that can fuel us to find solutions; or to express our grief in a way that helps us start to heal. Anyone – including a life coach – who tells you you must speak positively all the time is off-beam. What’s important is being aware of your language choices and the effect they have on your emotional wellbeing and relationships. Consciously choosing how much time to spend on venting, dwelling or expressing pain (and to whom) and gathering tools that help us to do so – like exercise, music, distracting activities – are important for mood-regulation and building healthy relationships.

Words to watch out for

Some of the words that I am particularly vigilant for in coaching sessions are should, must, have to, always and never. Should, must, have to can point to a feeling of resentful obligation; when a client uses these, I ask them about whether they feel they have a choice in a particular situation. If they’re using should, must or have to to strengthen their commitment to a moral code of some sort, and the words help them feel determined in a healthy choice; then great! More often, however, the words are draining – the sense of obligation actually weakens motivation, or adds a sense of resentment to an action that would otherwise be positive.

One simple but effective change is to swap them for ‘could’. Compare:

  • I should go visit [insert name] this weekend.
  • I could go visit [insert name] this weekend.

Which of these felt better? How about:

  • I should go to the gym this evening.
  • I could go to the gym this evening.

Which of these was more motivating? (Regarding motivation, if you missed it, I wrote a piece about why New Year’s Resolutions – and willpower – often fail.)

As to always and never; whilst these can be used positively (‘he always makes time for me’, ‘she never lets me down’), most often they’re used negatively within relationships or towards ourselves. For example: ‘he always complains I’m not doing enough’ or ‘she never offers to drive when we go out’. Or: ‘I always start well and end up failing’, or maybe ‘I never say what I really want to’. There are a couple of problems with such statements. Firstly, they’re absolutes. Is your ‘always’ or ‘never’ statement really 100% true, in all situations? Has it ever not been true? Questioning such statements is at the core of cognitive behavioural therapy, helping clients reinterpret their stories to improve mood. Secondly, always and never are permanent words: if you claim someone always behaves a certain way, you’re inferring that they can never change. This can make you or them feel hopeless or angry, and may make them feel as though there’s no point in trying to change behaviours. Try and replace always and never with softer words that allow for the possibility of change. ‘This time, I could try something different.’ Or ‘Now that I’m older/wiser, it might be easier to…’ For others: ‘I’ve noticed a pattern of X. I feel Y when you do that. Could you do Z instead?’ Whilst you can’t change others’ behaviour, losing the always and changing should to could may increase the likelihood of a positive response.

So, how’s your language?

Go back to the answers you wrote to the questions above. What mood comes across? If you were reading these from an unknown writer, what picture would you build up about that person and their circumstances? Underline any words that seem important. Do you like how they make you feel? If not, what could you change them to?


What words really get you feeling good? Consider song lyrics, poems, famous quotes and individual words. If you were to try and describe you at your best, what 3 words would you choose? Keep those at the forefront of your mind as you make decisions, to keep your vision of you at your best congruent with the choices you make in your daily life.

Be well!

[This article first appeared in my wellbeing column in the Sunday Irish Mirror on Sunday 11th January.]

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2 Responses

  1. January 25, 2015

    […] last week’s column for the Irish Sunday Mirror I talked about how the language we use – words, descriptions and […]

  2. February 21, 2015

    […] last week’s column for the Irish Sunday Mirror I talked about how the language we use – words, descriptions and […]

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