Three Words I No Longer Use

Are you robbing people of reaching their highest potential by using words that reduce their energy, creativity, curiousity and enthusiasm? Are you reducing their chances for finding and implementing the best possible solutions to their challenges?

I’ve banned three such words from my vocabulary, and there are some others I’m wbannedorking on but still slip and use occasionally. Here’s the three I’ve found the most important to get rid of. But I’ll have to use them one more time each to write this!

1.    Problem

Did you know that just hearing the word reduces our PHYSICAL strength? A number of years ago, I went to a conference session by Jerry Teplitz that demonstrated that point very effectively, and I gather there’s a lot of research to back it up. No wonder people feel discouraged and tired when meetings start with “let’s define the problem.” Or when they are invited to a “problem-solving” session.

Try starting instead with, What’s the best possible outcome from this situation? You’ll be amazed how much more creative the group will be, and how much more energy they will bring to the conversations. Innovative ideas will flow.

What’s more, the question keeps them from jumping to a solution. For any complex issue, the first solution is rarely a good solution, and the third one is almost always better than the first two. For complex issues, some people say you don’t get to good solutions until you’ve listed over 50! The initial solution may seem obvious, but it may not lead towards a good outcome. And it may be addressing a symptom instead of solving the real issue. You are likely to find a much better way to achieve the desired outcome if you start with an outcomes focus. It’s also the best way to find common ground from the start. People are more likely to agree on what is desired than on how to get there.

2.    Need

To me, this word implies a power imbalance. It is often used by those who have more tangible resources—mostly money—to people who have knowledge and skills but less money. When did you ever hear a government employee say, We NEED to find organizations that will accept this grant money/service contract.? Yet they do (I’m a recovering civil servant), since they cannot fulfill their mandate without such partners. It’s the same with foundations. They NEED to find organizations to fund so there are programs and services in the areas they care about, and to meet distribution quotas. Since the word is almost never used to reflect that power balance, I just want to avoid it.

Need also disempowers. Tell us what you need; we’ll serve your need—or not—depending on what we decide in rooms where you aren’t present or represented. We may or may not get back to you about what we’ve decided. You won’t even know whether or not to act to serve your need, because you are waiting to hear if someone else will. The word fosters inaction. It asks us to avoid taking responsibility for our own lives and our own communities. After all, how could a community with a lot of needs ever solve anything?

It’s been almost thirteen years since John McKnight and John Kretzmann published Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets. Why are we still asking about needs?

3.    Weakness

See above re Needs! As well, there is a robust and growing body of research demonstrating that we get far better results when we build on strengths than when we try to address weaknesses. And if the word “problem” saps our energy, how do you think people feel when they are asked to itemize their weaknesses?

In my earlier blog Why Not to SWOT, I go into more detail about why listing weaknesses is an absolutely terrible way to start planning.

It is sometimes of value at the strategy stage, but there are better words. Which areas need strengthening depend on the circumstances. You can’t meaningfully list them out of context.

Suppose your organization provides subsidized housing to people living in poverty. In a city with a number of other such organizations, it is simply silly to focus on what you aren’t great at if there’s another with strength in that area. The better strategy would be around partnership and collaboration, where each contributes in their areas of strength.

However, in a rural or remote area, you may need to strengthen an area such as property management or tenant relations because issues with such services are a barrier to mission achievement. If the current situation is “our waiting list is out of control”, that is a condition to be changed. Notice the reframing (thank you, Creating the Future). It’s not an admission of failure; it’s an action area. Which wording do you think is more helpful in meetings designed to generate solutions?

Now, for the word I still struggle with: Should

What an incredibly judgmental word! How do you feel when someone says, “you should”? It puts your back up! It means that even if you follow the instruction or take the advice, you begrudge the way it was communicated.

Sometimes, the advice makes the recipient feel stupid, now thinking, why didn’t I think of that? In my experience, even more often, the recipient now thinks the speaker regards them as stupid. In their heads, they are saying, Well, of course I tried that already. Is the speaker so blinkered they don’t recognize the ability of the person they are instructing or advising?

Asking questions about what the person hopes to achieve, and what they are taking into consideration, is a much more supportive way to handle someone struggling to decide on a course of action. Instead of “you should”, try questions. What options are you considering? Are there other options you could consider? What criteria would be helpful to you in analyzing your options? Let them answer the questions, with additional questions as needed, and they’ll own their decision.muted

I have mostly managed to delete “should” from my writing, but I have to be mindful. And if I speak before thinking, I still fall back into old, poor, habits. I could use your help; call me on it if you see or hear me use “should”. Please.

Next to be eliminated will be “but”. Why do you think that is?

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