By April 30, 2012 Read More →

Our Language Shapes Us

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“All our words from loose using have lost their edge.” — Ernest Hemingway

The words we use and the words we choose can shape our moments and our lives.  Have you ever experienced a great leader who never get stuck?  They are always asking things like, “What’s the opportunity?” or “What the next step?” or “How can we use this?’

It turns out that our language reflects fundamental dimensions of personality.  In the book, 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot, Richard Wiseman says that research shows that things like handwriting analysis and graphology don’t work.  Instead, it’s the words we use that provide the greatest insight into real character.

Our Language Has Clues

Have you heard of “The Big Five”?  It’s absolutely fascinating, and as Wiseman puts it, it’s “the holy grail of personality research.”  Anyway, here’s what’s interesting.  According to Wiseman, it started in the 1930s when a group of researchers compiled a list of 18,000+ words from an unabridged dictionary that could be used to describe personality.  They refined the list to about 4,000 words to describe relatively stable and central traits.  In the 1940s, another set of researchers refined this set to about 200 words.  Over the next 40+ years, researchers used increasingly sophisticated techniques to collect and analyze data on personality to identify key dimensions.  Finally, in the early 1990′s consensus emerged across countries and cultures around a set of five fundamental dimensions of personality.  The dimensions are: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

Changing Your Language, Changes Your Life

I’m a believer that language is empowering and you can use this.  I believe the key is from finding the words that move you and make you … and avoid the words that paralyze or break you.  Changing your language, changes your life.

We live in the age of insight.  It’s easy to browse the Web to find and explore new ways to say things or express ourselves more fully.

10 Ways to Use the Power of Language

Here are examples of ways to use words to shape your life:

  1. Find interesting words to express specific concepts.  I’ve always been a fan of expanding my vocabulary, and learning new languages.  I love it when a word perfectly expresses an idea.  For example, ikigai roughly translates to “the reason for which you wake up in the morning.”
  2. Choose metaphors that evoke your best imagery.  What does life mean to you?  Is it a tragedy or a comedy?  Maybe it’s a sitcom.  For me, it’s more like an epic adventure.  For you, maybe it’s more like a dance.  The people that dance with life, find a way to go with the flow, and bend instead of break.  It’s the willow way.
  3. Study Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). In simple terms, NLP is a way to program success.  It’s a tool for personal excellence.  It was popularized by Tony Robbins as a way to model and replicate the success of others.   According to Wikipedia, you can think of neuro-linguistic programming as “(‘neuro’), language (‘linguistic’) and behavioral patterns that have been learned through experience (‘programming’) and can be organized to achieve specific goals in life.”   If you study NLP, you can learn ways to dramatically improve your precision and accuracy of language.  You can then use it to reshape your thinking, feeling, and doing.
  4. Quotes.  I am a fan of quotes (did you notice my Great Quotes collection?).  As Sean Platt of Writer Dad says, “Life is better with the right words.” It’s so true, especially when we find just the right quote, that says it just the right way.  One of the reasons why I build out these quotes collections is to put the wisdom of the ages and modern sages right at our finger tips.  Quotes are “wisdom that sticks.”
  5. One-liner reminders.  This is similar to quotes, but in this case, the idea is to create some pithy prose that makes an idea stick.  It’s a great way to turn insight into action.  In fact, one way I remind myself to take what I learn and apply it is the one-liner reminder:  “Turn insight into action.”  Related to this, I also use the reminder, “Find three take aways.”   I use one-liner reminders to build new habits or practice new skills.  For example, the way I learned to improve my influence was “ask, don’t tell.”  It helped me to start asking better questions, and to pose better questions to help bring others along.
  6. Ask better questions.  You can use questions to build a wondering mind, and to explore new ideas.  People that get stuck or limit themselves tend to ask limiting questions, or they don’t ask questions at all.  Asking questions puts you in a more resourceful state.  Your mind is a powerful problem solver, but you need to ask it the right questions.  Here is a set of 101 Questions that Empower You to get you started.
  7. Model the leader.  Leaders tend to have a way with words.   The words they use help express conviction.  The words they use help express vision and opportunity.  Here are some of the words some of my favorite leaders use in their vocabulary:   learning moment, leadership opportunity,  challenge, win, excellence, connection, conviction, vision, etc.    Rob White of Mind Adventures is a great example of using inspiring words. mental models, and mantras for personal empowerment and self-leadership.
  8. Leverage patterns and pattern languages.  Patterns create a shared vocabulary.  If you haven’t explored patterns and pattern languages before, your world is about to rock.   Patterns are simply named problem and solution pairs.  The benefit is that you can build a simple language around the expert knowledge within a domain.  For example, Christopher Alexander developed pattern languages to share architectural solutions.  The beauty is you can use a single word to express a hundred-word concept.  In software development, one of the ways we rapidly share expertise is through patterns.  Beyond software, a great example of patterns in practice is the collection of Fearless Change: Patterns for Introducing New Ideas, which creates a vocabulary for driving change leadership.   I also have a post on The Power of Patterns.
  9. Make it a mantra.    According to Wikipedia, a mantra is “a sound, syllable, word, or group of words that is considered capable of ‘creating transformation.’  One of my mantras is, “stand strong when tested.”  Another is, “lead by example.”
  10. Choose your words to use your words.   In nearly every scenario where you say you “HAVE TO” do something, there is really a choice.   The choice may not be attractive, but that’s exactly why you are choosing the choice that you are.  Empower yourself by swapping out more “HAVE TO”s with “CHOOSE TO”s.   You will gradually break the ties that bind you, including your own.

Shape your words, shape your life.  Always remember that YOU are your most important meaning makers in your life.   Choose your words and use your words with skill.

9 Comments on "Our Language Shapes Us"

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  1. Diffio says:

    Thank you. Great post. Agree with you for 100%.

    In Israel we say: “The life and the death in the hands of the words.” (????? ?????? ??? ?????)

  2. Diffio says:

    WOW, you site doesn’t display Hebrew :)

  3. Fascinating, the part about the “Big Five!” I don’t know if any of those five words has as finely-honed an edge as it takes to neatly carve up the meat of human personality. But I admire the attempt, especially these days when it seems so much of the power of language is being eroded by the expectation of immediacy over eloquence.
    I appreciate your thoughtful content…

  4. JD says:

    @ Diffio — It sounds complimentary to “the pen is mightier than the sword.”

    @ Jeffrey — Probably the most insightful information I’ve read on personality is in the book, What You Can Change and What You Can’t, by Martin Seligman. It’s a deep dive from the enduring to the more elastic aspects of who we are.

    The other tomb of insight is Unlimited Power, by Tony Robbins. It’s a serious and significant dive into how we work, from the inside out. It’s amazing how much of who we are flows from our attitudes and beliefs.

    One other amaZingly insightful guide is The Process Therapy Model: The Six Personality Types with Adaptations, by Taibi Kahler. The idea of a personality condominium is a powerful one.

    Of course, I also enjoy the benefit of simple but powerful frames that focus on behavior preferences like Dr. K’s, Dealing with People You Can’t Stand … an all time classic.

  5. Fantastic post!

    I have a friend who has shared with me a Buddhist aphorism, “language forms the grooves of the mind”. That’s powerful stuff.

    Even more powerful, as you’ve indicated, is that by choosing our words appropriately we can change the way we think & doing so can change our lives.

  6. Hi JD,

    Our words do make us who we are. You say, “Empower yourself by swapping out more “HAVE TO”s with “CHOOSE TO”s. You will gradually break the ties that bind you, including your own.”

    Words we say can empower ourselves and empower others. One that I always use when it comes to relationships with other is, “I feel” instead of “You make me Feel”. Something can be said and you take it a different way than is meant. You are not blaming anyone, but taking full responsiablity for how you feel. This keep the door open.

    Thank you for the inspiration with words.
    Blessings to you JD,
    Debbie

  7. JD says:

    @ Jimmy — Thank you.

    I misread the quote at first blush and saw “laughing forms the grooves of the mind.” It is powerful stuff.

    I love how it’s such a simple mantra to inspire a habit … changing language, changes lives.

    @ Debbie — I like the way you own your feelings. Using “I” language takes our power back, stops the victim mindset, and stops blaming others or putting them into a defensive posture. I tend to use “I”, but often I *choose* to say, “you crack me up”, when somebody tickles my funny bone.

  8. Hilary says:

    Hi JD .. interesting how we use language, and how some of us are open to change our language and our state of mind … this is a thought provoking post .. thanks for this .. cheers Hilary

  9. JD says:

    @ Hilary — Thank you.

    I happened to be listening to another Tony Robbins session, and he made a point with great clarity — how we feel, determines how we act. So putting this together, if we find the words that inspire or empower us, we bring out our best in any situation.