How Your Choice of Words Can Reduce Stress and Empower You
Replacing common phrases in your thoughts and speech can radically improve your work and interpersonal relationships.
Language has a significant effect on how we experience the world, which has a correspondingly significant effect on our behavior. Our word choice can build or destroy relationships, make or break deals, and shape our sense of self. And yet we neglect these effects quite often.
The words we choose create a large part of reality. They establish and define commitments. They feed or change expectations—both in ourselves and in others. Words act as lenses, through which we view the world, and with which we build the narratives of our days, months, years, and lives.
So how much attention do you pay to the words you use?
Let’s take a look at four commonly used words and phrases, and how simply using an alternative can change the game entirely.
Have to, Need to, and Going to
There’s a huge difference between the things you have to do or need to do, and the things you’re going to do. The difference may seem small, but it’s there — and it sets you up to approach that thing as something you’ve chosen to do, rather than some burden laying on top of you.
In saying “going to,” you’re also speaking with a sense of commitment and intention. You’re on this thing. It’s a way of “faking it till you make it.” Maybe it seems dumb, but consider the low cost of doing this, compared to the potential benefits. If you just try this small change, it doesn’t take a lot of effort from you, but its benefits could be great.
If this seems a little crazy, consider this: your mind can’t tell the difference between the things you’ve committed to doing, and the things you haven’t, but that continue to be on your plate. To your anxious mind, it’s almost all the same — there’s just varying degrees of pressure distributed among the stuff you’re thinking about. Making this small change in phrasing can help to establish a small, but distinct division in your mind.
Can’t vs. Won’t
People often use “can’t” when they mean “won’t”. There’s a major difference between the two. Can’t implies an inability. It means that even if you wanted to, you would not be physically able to do this thing. But that is not often the case.
You usually can do this thing, but you’re choosing not to, for whatever reason. Perhaps your reasons are good ones. Perhaps this thing is too costly, too time consuming, or would come at the cost of something more important. Those are all valid reasons for choosing not to do something.
But when you say “can’t,” you do a small, but impactful thing: you take the element of personal freedom and choice out of the equation. You speak as if there is no choice. You’re not asserting your values, your priorities, and your previous choices. And your mind processes that “can’t” as an outside constraint, rather than a conscious choice you have made. It takes away credit from you for a decision, and does the exact opposite of making you feel empowered.
As you speak, so shall you think, and thus, so shall you act. If you speak in terms of what you won’t do, rather than what you can’t do, you subtly acknowledge your freedom of choice — as well as the choices you have made so far. You stand firm in your decisions — both in the past, and right now. That’s something that can make you feel empowered, which is always good.
You don’t need to say the exact phrase “I won’t”. Similar phrases will do, like “I choose not to,” or “that isn’t a priority for me right now.” The key is to say to yourself that you won’t be doing this, even though you can.
Want vs. Need
There is a very real difference between what we need and what we want. The entire modern minimalist movement has sprung up around this distinction. And for whatever the failings of that particular movement might be, what it gets right is that we often confuse our needs with mere wants. And that confusion complicates our lives.
Needs are not completely uniform across people or situations. Some people need things that others do not. But whoever the person, and whatever the situation, needs have to be understood by answering the deceptively simple question: can I be okay for the time being without this? If the answer is yes, then that thing is not a need. It’s a strong want, and it may well be pursuing, but that means you’re setting yourself up for worse disappointment by continuing to misspeak, and say that you need this thing.
When we speak of needs, we trigger a nearly automatic thought process within ourselves. We trigger thoughts of scarcity, threat, and crisis. Consider what “need” means. A need is something which, if we don’t get it, we face an existential threat. Our minds come equipped with an entire response system to handle existential threats. Potential unmet needs throw us into a mode where we fire off all sorts of hormones into our nervous systems. It makes for a stress response that can be avoided, if only we were able to re-frame this distinction between needs and wants.
Know vs. Perceive
Assumptions are harmful. They can make you look foolish when you make one that doesn’t turn out correct. They can hurt others by changing how others treat them on what ends up being a flimsy evidence. They are a poor basis for most actions.
When we say we know something, and it’s not a mundane fact, we’re usually in danger of making an assumption. This is especially true if we’re claiming we know the thoughts, motivations, or intentions of others. Even if we have managed to correctly guess in the past, those things are risky for us to claim we know.
So rather than using the words “I know” or derivatives (I’m certain, I’m sure, there’s no doubt, etc.) use the words “I perceive”. This does two things:
- First, it allows you to avoid committing verbally to something that could be an assumption. It gives you wiggle room, and allows others to avoid acting as if what you said is gospel (and thus proliferating assumptions).
- Secondly, saying “I perceive that…” forces you to think in terms of why you believe what you do. It forces you to cite observations and evidence, rather than your hasty conclusions about what they all mean.
The Overarching Principle: Speak Intentionally
We humans — for the most part — are a verbal bunch of beasts. We talk a lot. And that has been great on the timeline of social development. But talking also gets us into trouble when we do it without intention.
Reacting by speaking tends to end badly when there are a lot of emotions at stake for the speaker and the listener. Thinking out loud when someone is trying to nail down specifics can result in all sorts of miscommunication and bad faith.
Choosing the right words is important, and the 4 phrasings above are a great first step in improving how you deploy words in your life. If nothing else, just remember: words help build our reality. If we choose words poorly, the reality we build will reflect that. So, choose your words wisely.