In the animal world communication allows members of the herd or pack to stay safe, share mood, move together and feed or hunt effectively. Elephants use touch, vibration, smell and have a wide repertoire of sounds from trumpeting to growls, rumbles and squeals. For us humans, the art of effective communication is complex mix of words and tone, speed of speech, eye contact, body language, smiles, depth and rate of breathing, rapport and so much more. For just now, let’s keep it simple and only consider some of the words we choose to use; we could be so much more effective in communicating, if we understood what we do with certain words in our heads.

To illustrate my point…let’s consider some sports coaches I’ve been working with recently; as a starting point, I sat in and watched (and more importantly listened to) their sessions. They used a lot of what they thought was positive and encouraging language: ”oh don’t worry…I know it’s hard”, “don’t put your head down”, “don’t forget to straighten your legs”, “keep trying…don’t give up”…you see the coaches were really good at reinforcing the unwanted negative, behaviours.

Imagine you have a long to-do list at work and it’s stressing you out, if a well-meaning colleague says “oh don’t worry about it, relax!”…what’s your immediate reaction, without realising it…you start to think about the to-do list, maybe you make a picture of it in your head, look at all of the things on the list, maybe it looks huge, you can’t see what needs to be done, you don’t have time,  it’s a big list and now you’re really  worrying!

What happens is this…in order to process the negative (the ‘don’t’ part of the sentence) the brain first has to ‘rehearse’ the rest; so if the coach says “ok…don’t miss it”…the brain first has to picture or rehearse, what a ‘miss’ looks like, sounds like and what it feels like to miss and then it has to say to itself “ok I don’t want to do that”. Sadly, what has happened in a nano-second, is that the brain has rehearsed ‘missing’ (or worrying); this results in a neural pathway being made in the brain and simply put, the stronger the neural pathway and the more automatic the response becomes…we worry and we miss, really easily! And the more times we rehearse something (even in our heads…) the better we get at it (ever watched the pilot of a bobsleigh team rehearsing the turns before the run itself); this is great if we’re rehearsing something positive but not so good if we’re instructed to rehearse a negative such as “don’t miss” or “don’t worry”.

Working with the coaches, we devised lots of new ways of giving the same instruction but using positive and specific language instead, so that the brain just rehearsed the positive behaviour and made strong neural connections to the preferred outcome. The coaches used phrases like: “remember…straighten your legs”, “stand tall, head up high”, “spot the catch”; while “don’t’ worry” became “ok, take a breath, now relax”.  Focusing on the word “try” for a moment… say “I try” to yourself, now say “I do”…how do they feel, how do they feel different…generally, there’s a sense of failure with “I try”. Recognising this, we basically removed the word “try” from the coaching vocabulary… we started using phrases like “when you do it next time”, “let’s just do it”, “ok, better… now do it like this…”. Understanding what we’ve talked about…imagine the impact of replacing the phrase “don’t worry…keep trying” (your brain processes this as “worry and keep failing”) with “ok, take a breath…now, let’s do it this way”…what a transformation!

The impact of just framing language in the positive and replacing the word “try” was huge! I used many different techniques with the coaching staff, mixing and blending strategies, giving them tactics to allow them to maximise their effectiveness and refine their coaching ‘style’ and the results were impressive…even the coaches were far more confident.

Effective communication and affecting positive changes in behaviour are unwritten fundamentals in parenting, education, successful selling, people management, business meetings, team effectiveness…the list is endless. If nothing else, use the phrase “have a cup of tea and relax” as it’s immensely more powerful than “don’t worry, try and relax”.

For more information on effective communication contact:

Lindsey at The NineDot Partnership Ltd: