5 Techniques to Choose Better Language for Innovation and Collaboration

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1.) Learn to Focus on the DOs, and let the DONTs take care of themselves

You go into a team innovation meeting, and spend the first 30 minutes analysing what is wrong with the current state.

Has this happened in your team? Does this create the right environment to innovate in? Observe the mood, energy, body language of such meetings…

Woman with Hat

Image by JB Photo via Flickr

Image by JB Photo via Flickr

Innovation is about what is possible, about inspiration, about a positive mindset, and the language we use directly impacts our ability to contribute. Gripe sessions get in the way. Positivity engages.

Broadening our horizons to focus on the possible rather than on what constrains us is difficult enough without focusing on what is wrong with the current state, and it requires a disciplined use of affirmative, additive, positivie language. What we focus on grows, and if we focus on all that is wrong with the current state it is much more difficult to shift to thinking about what is possible.

Susan Mazza at Random Acts Of Leadership recently had an (as usual) inspiring post about self-destructive behaviors of people trying to protect their jobs in this economic downturn, and she suggested 5 things one should STOP doing, as well as 10 behaviors to START doing… I absolutely love her post, AND I feel the language she uses has the potential to be even more powerful by primarily focusing on what to START doing, and allowing STOPS to take care of themselves.


2.) Learn to Reframe your Language

In fact I think that reframing our language has tremendous potential, let’s take an airline example:

Would you rather go into a meeting where the agenda is to discuss “Lost Baggage Customer Complaints”, or would you feel more energized to discuss “Achieving Optimal Customer Arrival Experience”? A successful outcome of creating an optimal customer arrival experince would almost certainly address anything that would need to be done to eliminate lost baggage.

Develop the skill to stop and deliberately review your language, emails, agendas. Ask yourself: How can I reframe this to shift the focus on the positive, the strenghts of our organization, colleagues, resources? Will my language engage people? Will it inspire positivity rather than focus on something negative?


3.) Innovation and Collaboration – Venting Optional

In “Six Thinking Hats” approach there is a view that “venting” is a catharsis necessary and useful to move forward: I disagree. Rather I agree with Peter Drucker‘s philosophy on the role of leadership as cultivating one’s strenghts in a way that makes ones weaknesses irrelevant. As in the airline example, issues that need to be addressed or fixed will still allow discussion, disagreements and a certain amount of “venting”, but it should not be allowed to have central focus, and will almost certainly be seen as a negative once everyone is already focusing on how to move forward.

4.) Our Language Reflects Our Emotions, And Our Emotions Reflect Our Language

Our reality is shaped and co-constructed by our perceptions, emotions and our language. Recognizing that positive language yields positive emotions can be a great contributor and enabler in the innovation process. Therefore, learn how to harness the power of positivity, in order to translate it into language we use constructively when dealing with each other.

Robyn at pursuingpassions.com writes on the Practice of Positivity:

Positive emotions increase our thought-action repertoire creating a broadening effect that opens us up to generativity, to creativity and to each other.

5.) Develop and  cultivate a “Yeah, and…” perspective, for yourself and your team

Gary Bertwhistle in his post over at Innovation Tools perfectly illustrates how language is important to promote and cultivate good ideas:

While working in New Zealand recently, I met the CEO of a large manufacturing company. Although he agreed with my philosophies around leading innovation, he was one of those “yeah but” guys.

As I presented my keynote, he would very politely ask questions which always began with “Yeah, but…” After he’d done it a few times, I shared with the audience an intriguing part of leadership that starts with language. I challenged the audience (and indirectly this CEO) to answer the question – are you a “yeah but” guy or a “yeah and” guy?

You see, if whenever you are reviewing a new idea, and the first thought that comes into your mind is “Yeah but…”, you’re basically putting a full stop straight on the end of the idea.

Do you have examples of where language played a part in setting the right tone for a meeting? Where reframing the language of the  agenda resulted in a more energized and productive discussion?

  • I like where you are heading with this. It also speaks to our 100% responsibility in shaping a conversation. “Words create worlds”. We co-construct meaning in relationship with others. Your example of the inquiry into passengers’ baggage experience illustrates this very well. What will be more generative and results-oriented? Sending people off into a downward spiral of looking back over what went wrong, when energy can be sapped and the probability of apportioning blame and “all care and no responsibility” mindset takes over; or, you can inquire into what did go well and what it is that you want the baggage experience to be for passengers going forward? Positive, uplifting language shifts people to what is possible, expands their capacity for creativity and innovation. Focus on the solution you all want and consciously choose language that will take you there. I like that you say “what you focus on grows.”

  • Choosing our language is absolutely vital. I believe our language provides an important access to our worldview. When we use language unconsciously we both reflect and reinforce our unexamined beliefs. Consciously choosing our words, as you suggest, goes way beyond semantics as many people seem to believe. It has the power to cause real change in both the speaker and the listener as you point out here. When your goal is innovation you certainly want to consciously use language that opens peoples minds to possibility.

    A language shift I often coach people in making is from “is” to “could be”. It is a great way to practice mindfulness.

    And you have me thinking about my post so here is what I have been thinking about…In my post I consciously chose the stop and start language because I was attempting to highlight the protectionist behaviors and then paint a clear picture of my proposed shift. Yet if I was teaching the principles I was writing about I would focus on what to do (or more likely distinguishing the context so people could generate their own possible array of actions) vs. putting any attention on what not to do as you suggest. That doesn’t mean I think I did it right – my comment here is not a defense but rather me thinking out loud “now why did I do it that way”? I continue to ponder this and it will inform future posts I am sure so thank you for that!

  • Gwyn Teatro

    To start a business conversation from a “glass half full” perspective is a great way to build on what is good. In practice, it can be challenging because of our pre-disposition toward negative thinking.
    Your comments about “Yeah, but” and Yeah,and” struck a cord with me, reminding me that I have a lot of work to do in the re-framing department.:)
    I enjoyed reading your post. It is very thought-provoking

  • Thank you all for your thoughtful comments, they are much appreciated –

    @Gwyn: It is an ongoing, but positive challenge for all of us predisposed to worry about what’s left in the glass, I count myself among them. I actually find this is a bit easier to preach than to practice, and I know the saying is definitely not “preaching makes perfect” 🙂 So I’m working on practicing this as well.

    @Susan: It was actually your post that initially got me thinking, and I didn’t mean to suggest an improvement to your post, rather just food for thought… The stop start metaphor worked really well in your post, and illustrates your concept of shifting people from a “what is” to a “what could be” state.

    @Robyn: Thank you most of all to introducing me to these concepts to begin with, I consider myself a grateful student, and hope I’ve been listening well.