I NEED vs I WANT
I MUST vs I PREFER
I CAN’T vs I CHOOSE
Most of us tend to use reactive language in our day to day lives: “I CAN’T do this because I MUST do that”. The reality of the situation is that you probably don’t have to do the second thing and probably CAN do the first thing.
Outside of being bound by the laws of physics, there are very few things in life that you HAVE to do or that you CAN’T do. So why do we use those words?
Using reactive language absolves you of responsibility but also makes you powerless: “I am not responsible. I am not able to choose my response. There is nothing I can do about it”.
|WHAT YOU SAY||WHAT YOU MEAN|
|I can’t do that.|
I just don’t have the time
|Something external (limited time) is controlling me|
|If only my boss were more patient||Someone else’s behaviour is limiting my effectiveness|
|I have to do it||Circumstances or other people are|
forcing me to do what I do. I am not free to choose my own actions.
|Reactive Language||Proactive Language|
|I need…||I want…|
|I must…||I prefer…|
|I can’t…||I choose…|
This subtle change in language can make a huge positive impact in your life.
“I wish I could take 6 months off and travel the world but I can’t because I have to work and I don’t have enough vacation.”
“Although I would love to take 6 months off and travel, my financial security and my career are currently more important to me. I choose not to go on this trip so that I can focus on my career instead.”
“The experience of travelling is much more important to me than my job or my financial security. So I will convince my boss to give me a 6 month sabbatical (or just quit?) and I will go on this iconic journey.”
Re-evaluate your Paradigm
Saying that “I DON’T WANT TO go on a wonderful 6 month trip because I WANT TO work” is difficult and counterintuitive. By changing your language you will re-evaluate your reality:
- Do I really want to keep working instead of travelling?
- How important is seeing the world to me?
- How important is my job or career?
- Is this job really what I want to do?
- What is truly important to me?
There are no right or wrong answers to any of these questions. But asking these questions is important and empowers you to change.
Be Precise in your Speech
How you talk reinforces what you believe to be true. By being reactive with your language, you reinforce that you are powerless. By being precise and truthful with your language, you accept responsibility for your choices and gain the power to change those choices and to change your situation.
Make it your Fault.
Until you can honestly say that “I am what I am today because of the choices I made yesterday” you cannot say “I choose otherwise”.
Never blame others for failures. Always blame yourself. The moment you blame another person or some external circumstance, you become powerless to change the results:
“The project failed because we didn’t get enough support from the marketing department. They need to do a better job next time.”
“The project failed because I did not mobilize the marketing department effectively. Next time I will change my strategy and make a more effective presentation explaining the importance of their role in the success of this project.”
The more responsibility you take, the more power you have to change.
2 thoughts on “Reactive vs Proactive Language”
In the practice, this is the only aspect I disagree with, among all.
Note that the proactive statements are too wordy comparing to the non-proactive ones.
This is not assertive language, it brings communication problems and is not effective, not efficient in the long run.
Great thoughts, Alex. This happens to be something I enjoy reading about in my free time. You’re touching on adopting an internal locus of control. It’s a powerful concept, and I suspect it’s molded and reinforced to no small degree by the language we use.
There’s a fair body of research showing that “internals” tend to do better at work and have better health. We know it’s important, but, sadly, there’s been little research on how to change it later in life. I’m sure changing language would be helpful.
We could also avoid thinking about past failures past the point that there’s a lesson to learn. Even if someone else is mostly to blame, you can’t do anything about the past but learn a lesson for yourself next time.
When we feel trapped – like our lives are just happening to us beyond our control – it might also be worth evaluating the decisions we actually have. At work, we can realize quitting is actually always an option. Sometimes we forget that. We may decide it’s not worth quitting, but hey, we’ve already made a decision! That decision to continue work by itself reinforces the fact that we’re in control and choosing to put up with the situation of our own volition.