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Future-Negative Language

Updated: Jul 25, 2020

Enjoy the words of basketball great Michael Jordan: "Why would I think about missing a shot that I haven’t taken yet?”

Then, listen in to the conversations that you are having these days. Really listen. What do you hear? Start to dissect the energy of the words within the conversation. Are they:

"What's happening to our world?" "They can't..." "I won't..." "There is no way that ... will ever happen." "I'm stressed... didn't sleep."

Some people might explain their negative words with: "That's just the way I speak; that's just who I am; I always talk like that." The important question, though, is not about our conversation style. Rather, it is about how our language will affect the game that we are all going to play called tomorrow. Is the language that we use today preparing us to win or lose tomorrow's game? Do our words prepare our minds to play their best next game?

Actually, there are many times in our lives when we will go negative. It's not all wrong. And I am certainly not saying that all of life is positive. But most of the time, going negative sounds like playing-not-to-lose instead of playing-to-win!

We call this Future-Negative Language. The positive psychology movement has proven that along with learned optimism, learned pessimism is alive and thriving.

Back to the question: will today's language prepare us to win tomorrow's game?

One more time, Michael Jordan: "Why would I think about missing a shot that I haven’t taken yet?” Language reveals thinking and language informs thinking. Language is our thinking, voiced.

How has your language been these past months? What has been on your mind, in your heart, and passed over your lips? A friend of mine, Peter Comrie, told me something that made a bunch of sense: "Decide what your company is going to do coming out of Covid-19 and start acting that way now."

Some companies have found ways to save millions of dollars by having a portion of their people work from home. Peter's point is, if the company sees that advantage and is adding this to their future business plan, they should begin putting the systems and training in place to support these initiatives now.

Forgive me Peter, for borrowing your words and then adjusting them slightly: Decide who you are going be coming out of Covid-19 and start talking that way now! Does our current language line up with the person we desire to be tomorrow, the athlete we want to perform like next game, the CEO we need to be during the next crisis, or the parent we must become soon? Will negatively reacting today inform and deliver tomorrow's win?

I experienced the power of language at the highest level of professional sport.The September of my 5th NHL season in 1982, I was traded from the Washington Capitals (who struggled to win games) to the Montreal Canadiens (who were coming off six Stanley Cup Wins over their past ten seasons). There was a marked difference in the language of the players and the expectations of management. One team's conversations tended to focus on negative personal & cultural expectations, and the other team's language trended towards expecting each other to improve, develop and win... often.

One of my favourite NHL Coaches, Pat Quinn, once said, “Coaches don’t lose the room.” This came when I was interviewing Pat, along with other NHL coaches, for our 4th book, Simply The Best. After Pat made this statement, I pushed back a bit and said, "Pat I have been inside those NHL dressing rooms; coaches do lose the room!”

Pat emphatically voiced back to me, “Ryan, coaches don’t lose the room. Players start listening to a new voice.”

What a powerful thought! Whose voice do your employees listen to... your kids listen to? Whose voice do you listen to? Two-way conversations between you and another person are really six-way conversations. You talk to the person next to you and they talk to you. But let's remember that at the same time you are informing both people's non-conscious brains (their Inner Games), and then your Inner Games talk back to each of you. Words count. They impact our thinking, then they impact others, and then they influence our tomorrows.

Dr. Gills ran a double triathlon 6 times at the age of 59, and he gives us great perspective and powerful wisdom: “I have learned to talk to myself instead of listen to myself! If I listen to myself I hear all the reasons why I should give up: too tired, too old, too weak to make it.”

“But if I talk to myself, I can give myself the words of encouragement that I need to keep running and finish the race."

The people around us and the conversations that we participate in do have a huge influence on what we do today, and who we become tomorrow. High performers do not have to be victims to external forces. We must influence our conversations, choose our language, adjust our expectations, and SHIFT our mindsets. Conversational awareness and intentional focus better prepare us to compete in our next game.

In her column, Why small changes to the language around addiction are so enormously important, Dr. Laura MacKinnon, a primary care physician working in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and in Northern B.C., and a research fellow with the B.C. Centre on Substance Use, shares the words of one of her patients who recently refused to go to the hospital for a life-threatening infection, stating, "I don't want to go to [this hospital] because they treat me like I'm just an addict there."

MacKinnon says of this patient: "She is a loving mother of four and proud grandparent of three. She is a resilient survivor of intimate physical violence, and currently employed as a peer support worker, helping others in her community prioritize their mental and physical health. She developed an opioid use disorder after she suffered an accident and was prescribed opioids for chronic pain."

Dr. Laura MacKinnon continued, "I'm a family doctor who works primarily in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, a vibrant neighbourhood that is notorious for high rates of poverty, drug use, and mental illness. And I've learned that language carries a lot of weight. My favourite poster in our clinic space reads, 'Label jars not people.' I love this poster, because it highlights the importance of language."

We gave Michael Jordan the first words in this article; let's give him the last words also, slightly adjusted. If you want to sink the shot to win tomorrow's game, why are you thinking (and talking) about missing the shot today?

SHORT SHIFTS - Ryan's new way of adding value to you and your family during this hard game. Learn more about SHIFTING today's Mindset in order to WIN tomorrow's GAME!

Dr. Laura MacKinnon · for CBC News Opinion · Posted: Feb 09, 2020 4:00 AM ET

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