What’s there to fear in an office setting? Just failure. And rejection. And resentment. And miscommunication. And … need we go on?
We all know that fear can wreak havoc on our ability to think — and perform — at our best. That same chemical cocktail that came in handy for initiating fight or flight when encountering a saber-toothed tiger can still kick in today at even the smallest of slights. Like when Tom in the next cubicle tells us to use our “inside voice” on a conference call. Or when manager Katherine tells us the presentation we pained over “completely missed the mark.”
Change in language creates a change in mindset. And your mindset is the driver of your behavior.
These criticisms are often intended to help improve relationships or performance. But our brains don’t always do a good job of perceiving intent when the words rub us the wrong way. Instead, an internal alert goes off. The amygdala — primed to take control when we need to battle a murderous predator — sends distress signals to our hypothalamus. In turn, adrenaline floods our bodies. Our heart rate goes up. Breathing quickens. The rational part of our brain takes a back seat. And that ancient part of our brains, primed for battle, is remarkably slow at backing down.
“When we face criticism, rejection or fear … our bodies produce higher levels of cortisol, a hormone that shuts down the thinking center of our brains and activates conflict aversion and protection behaviors,” say Judith E. Glaser and Richard D. Glaser in “The Neurochemistry of Positive Conversations.” And these effects can end up lasting “26 hours or more, imprinting the interaction on our memories and magnifying the impact it has on our future behavior.” So that snide remark you let slip during the last meeting? It may cause your colleague to see you in a negative light for hours, days … or weeks.
Luckily, subtle changes in our language can have a substantial effect on the quality and success of our interactions. “Swapping simple words and phrases we are used to saying multiple times a day can reprogram the way we think about and view perceived obstacles that stand in the way of personal success,” says Bernard Roth, author of The Achievement Habit.
One example? Replacing “have to” with “get to” or “want to.” When you reframe your language like this, you’re turning a task of necessity into one of choice. (Try it the next time you “have to” finish a report.) The sense of have to doom is now replaced with confidence and optimism.
When you reframe your language like this, you’re turning a task of necessity into one of choice.
Here’s another trick: replace “but” with “and” in statements like “I really want this raise but I’m afraid to ask for it.” As Roth suggests, the use of “but” can trick us into believing there’s an obstacle we’re unable to overcome. It sets up a mental block and prevents us from moving forward. By reframing the statement to include “and,” you’re telling your brain that both parts of the equation are true. And you’re more likely to see an opportunity to improve.
This change in language creates a change in mindset. And your mindset is the driver of your behavior. More optimism leads to more confidence. And these qualities, confidence and optimism, are repeatedly linked with higher performance.
In a 100-year profile study of 75 CEOs of major baseball teams, those who encouraged confidence and optimism had teams that won more games and attracted more fan attendance. (Editor’s note: It’s not clear if this is a result of causality, correlation or cursed Cubs). These same winning qualities are also ascribed to insurance agents who outsold their peers by 57% within two years. As Andrew W. Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman say in Words Can Change Your Brain, “choose your words wisely, because they will influence your happiness, your relationships and your personal wealth.”
The ability to see and communicate challenges as opportunities instead of threats isn’t just something you’re born with. It’s like a muscle. The more you reframe negative observations to positive ones, the better you get at it. You perform better. Your relationships grow stronger. And you’re able to accomplish more, together. Just ask the social scientists who’ve been able to predict, with alarming accuracy, the success of marital unions.
After studying thousands of couples over decades, psychologist John Gottman has found what appears the magic ingredient to sustaining healthy relationships. Couples who stay happily together create a climate of trust through their language and reduce the physiological effects of stress. They’re exhibiting traits associated with what he calls “masters.”
“There’s a habit of mind that masters have,” Gottman explains. “They are scanning social environments for things they can appreciate and say thank you for. They are building this culture of respect and appreciation very purposefully.” On the flipside, the “disasters” in this equation, couples who trigger stress responses (or even divorce), are “scanning the social environment for their partners’ mistakes.” When you’re looking for and calling out the negative, you may miss up to 50 percent of the positive things your partner (or peers) are bringing to the table.
So instead of saying, “You’re always late, what’s wrong with you?” consider reframing your language to something more like, “When you arrive on time, we all benefit from your contribution and can perform better.” you’re setting up a way to resolve problems before they spiral into negative interactions that can spell the death-knell of productivity.
Experts suggest this point is particularly apt when addressing a conflict or having a difficult conversation with someone on your team. If you’re a leader having a performance discussion, for example, try framing the conversation to focus on a team member’s goals and how to achieve them, versus how far they’re missing the mark. You’ll avoid triggering the parts of the brain that tell us we’re being threatened, and instead create an atmosphere of mutual trust where everyone can see a positive path forward.
Showing concern for others, listening, being open to input and painting a picture of shared success are all crucial in creating productive (and profitable) relationships — in and outside of the office. We all want to be acknowledged for our efforts and contributions, and the more we point out what others are doing right, the healthier and happier we can all become.
As Emma Seppala, author of The Happiness Track, suggests, “People who feel more connected to others have lower levels of anxiety … higher self-esteem, greater empathy for others, are more trusting and cooperative, and as a consequence, others are more open to trusting and cooperating with them.” Trust and cooperation beget trust and cooperation.
But there is a catch. These positive interactions, such as expressing gratitude or appreciation for a colleague’s effort, must outweigh the negative moments, and your compliments must feel genuine. Gottman’s research is clear on this point: “Negativity holds a great deal of emotional power, which is why it takes five positive interactions to overcome any one negative interaction.”
So, even if we’re not battling saber-toothed cats or hunting woolly mammoths, it can certainly still feel like we are. But we also know more about how to improve our interactions and responses. Sometimes, all it takes is a deep breath and a better way to phrase something. (Besides, Tom in the next cubicle really wants you to notice when he’s nailed his task. See?)