Words Have Power by Esma Izzidien
If I walked up to a stranger and said “pick that box up” would they? Probably not, they’d probably be thinking “pick it up yourself”. If I said “can you pick that box up?” would they? Maybe or they might think “I could, but I don’t want to, so I won’t”. How about “can you pick the box up for me please?” I’m guessing, most people probably would. If I asked “would you be so kind as to help me by picking the box up?” I can pretty much guarantee, the box is going to get picked up. Why? Because language is powerful and can contain embedded commands that access the unconscious mind.
Advertisers and those in sales know this all too well and use it to their advantage. Isn’t it time we as parents got in on the science behind language and used it to our advantage too? If you go to buy a security system the seller will probably use words like “you can feel safe with our system because…” and “one of the things you will love about our package is..” and “I’m wondering how soon you would like to move forwards with the purchase?”. They use language to highlight to your subconscious that you will feel safe and love what they have to offer and that you are able to move forwards.
So, when I ask someone to “be so kind as to move the box” their subconscious tells them if they don’t then they are not being kind. Given most people want to think of themselves as kind, they almost certainly will move the box. Knowing this, the next time I found my little boy climbing up and sitting on the table, instead of the go to words we often used of “stop climbing” or “don’t sit on the table” I tried using words like “can you show me how beautifully you can sit on your chair?” and it worked! I’ve noticed the children are much more likely to help tidy up if they hear me say “I wonder who could be so helpful and put these toys in the basket?” then when I used to declare “one of you needs to pick these toys up now”. The only problem is that sometimes this causes an argument as to who will move the toys as they both want to be the “helpful one” so I’ve had to re-phrase things!
With very young children, our choice of words is even more important. If I tell you not to think of a unicorn jumping over a rainbow, the first thing your mind is going to picture is a unicorn jumping over a rainbow. Our mind needs to think of what we have asked before it can then undo that to ‘not’ think of it. When you tell a small child to “not run,” they are going to take a moment to process the “run” before the "not". If you need an instant response you need to ask them to “please walk” or in a dangerous situation you might just say “stop!”
Positive language is about more than just speaking nicely. It’s about making a conscious choice with the words we use and how we frame them. I’ve seen the huge impact it has on behavior in classrooms in the school I run. I’ve also seen how using positive language can really help in difficult conversations I’ve had with patients in my medical work. Above all else though, I’ve seen the impact it has had on my own children - getting them to think and behave in more positive ways and as a result make more positive choices. Interestingly, I’ve noticed my 6 year-old using positive language to get her four year old brother to do things for her!
I’m so glad I was introduced to the science behind positive language and I think as parents and educators we need to be making use of this knowledge instead of just those who seek to make profit through advertising from it. On that note, I’m off to ask my husband if he would be so kind as to make me a cup of tea…
Esma is a Mum, Founder of Cardiff Montessori School and GP