- Is Your Language Helping or Hurting You?
By Paul D. Roberts
When I was 16, and Reagan was in the White House, I bussed tables at a restaurant in Toronto, Canada. My friend, John, was one of the most successful waiters in the place, and he shared a tip with me – If you ask your customer, “are you o.k.?” they will say, “yes” and you won’t sell another drink. If you ask them, “Can I get you another drink, appetizer, etc” they will likely say, “yes” and order more – Tips were 10-15% of the total bill, and made up the bulk of our take-home pay; the more you sold, the more you made, the more successful you were.
What John knew instinctively was the power of language to move people in the direction you want them to go. In his incredible book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman illuminates this concept of Confirmation Bias and how people search for the evidence that confirms the hypothesis that they are trying to test.
When asked, “Is Sam Friendly?” different instances of Sam’s behavior will come to mind than would if you had been asked, “Is Sam unfriendly?” – Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman
This concept can be important when running an ideation/brainstorming session, where you are packing minds into an interactive room to explore new possibilities, generate new ideas, and push out thinking. A powerful tool in this situation is forward moving language. i.e. deliberately choosing Confirmation Biases that moves your team to explore possibilities.
An example we see all the time is the use of pros vs. cons to evaluate ideas i.e. “what about an idea is going to work, what’s not going to work?”. In cons like, “it won’t work because we don’t have the budget for it” the won’t and the don’t stick out like sore thumbs. They are the “Is Sam unfriendly” in the example above, and act like dead ends, biasing the group toward killing the idea. The common response is, “oh yeah, you’re right that isn’t going to work”, because the very question itself makes you start to think of the myriad of reasons the idea won’t work.
Breakthrough ideas, however, often show up in their raw form and need adapting and evolving to become feasible groundbreaking concepts; listing the cons can throw the baby out with the bathwater, and will prevent the idea from being developed.
A language we use to fully explore ideas is to list “concerns” instead of “cons”. Concerns with an idea are problems to be solved, and if you phrase those concerns as questions e.g. “How to do this within budget?” an entirely different set of confirmation biases kick in, ones that imply there are ways forward and solutions to be found. You will notice your team will automatically start to present solutions, build out the possibilities, go down new paths to find feasibility and develop solutions.
If you use forward moving language you set your team on a path to explore and uncover the potential of ideas that your competition are throwing out using pros vs. cons evaluation.
It might seem like semantics to craft your language, but confirmation bias is a real phenomena. Adopting and adapting to forward moving language does require practice and mindfulness. I was teaching an Innovative Team Workshop recently, and one of the participants asked me, “isn’t it exhausting to be constantly mindful of what you are saying?” The answer is yes, especially at the beginning when you are trying to change your habits. It is also exhausting to work two shifts waiting tables, just to make the same amount of money as the guy asking, “Can I get you another… breakthrough idea?”