Is Your Message More Negative than You Think?


Mark Murphy of Leadership IQ is a New York Times bestselling author, weekly contributor to Forbes, ranked as a Top 30 Leadership Guru and the Founder of Leadership IQ.  He’s trained leaders at the United Nations, Harvard Business School, the Clinton Foundation, Microsoft, MasterCard, SHRM, and hundreds more organizations.

Leadership IQ recently launched a free product that looks for potential negative messages in your communication. Murphy says “when you’re about to have a difficult conversation, or deliver some constructive feedback or even send an email when you’re slightly irritated, it’s really important to PAUSE and ANALYZE the words you’re going to say.”

Negative words can inflame already tough situations. So the company created an app called the Negative Word Analyzer to help you flag and remove any negative words that could make your difficult situation even tougher to handle.

Just type or copy/paste your email or speech or script or whatever into the app. It will match your text against the 2,000+ words that researchers have identified as ‘negative.’ Then you can take your email, script, etc. and rewrite it to make your upcoming communication a lot less negative (and thus heated and difficult).

Try the Negative Word Analyzer

I pasted a recent message I sent to a job seeker who was having trouble with her job search.  I had intentionally written with a “tough love” attitude, so I thought it was the perfect message to put through the Negative Word Analyzer.

Here’s what the Negative Word Analyzer returned to me by email just a few seconds later:

Your message had 11 negative words.

What follows is some tips on avoiding negative words and after that is your message text with the negative words in BOLD.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that your message is bad, but changing a few words could make your audience more receptive.

Research has identified more than 2,000 words that are considered ‘negative.’ These range from serious ones like abhorrent and abysmal to more mild ones like blunder and complain. And in many workplace settings, these words have the potential to derail your message.

Here’s a tip: For every negative word that was flagged, ask yourself whether you’re stating a fact or you’re making an interpretation or communicating an emotion. Maybe there really isn’t another way to say what you’re trying to say, but remember, people generally react poorly to interpretations and emotions, while facts typically elicit much more calm and rational responses.

For example, a clear sign that we’ve left the world of facts and entered the realm of interpretations is the use of words like ‘always’, ‘never’, ‘forever’, ‘impossible’, and ‘constantly’. We hear this in phrases including “you’re always late,” “you never get your work done on time,” or “you’re constantly on the phone.” For something to be ‘always the case’ means there is not one single instance where it was otherwise. Arriving on schedule to even one meeting every three years makes the statement “you’re always late” false, and so it’s not a fact.

Saying that someone is “always late” is not a fact; it’s an interpretation, and a negative one at that. But being specific, by referencing the time, date, and location of specific moments, events, situations, actions, etc., restricts you to only the facts. By keeping your thoughts and words factual, you’re keeping yourself relatively calm, which means there’s a good chance your words will be heard. And it also means you’re less likely to have your words thrown back at you.

Also, why is the word “you” flagged as negative? While not negative on its own, the word “You” often elicits a bad reaction. In conversation, especially feedback conversations, the word “You” is pretty commonly followed by something like …”need to stop doing XYZ” or “…be better at ABC.” Basically, attacks and criticism so commonly follow the word “you” that people just naturally tense-up when they hear it.

Your message was:

Hi Candidate – you obviously have plenty of qualifications. I suspect the problem is you yourself don’t know what you want to do next. Your cover letter, while well-written, is generic and vague – you’re asking a recruiter to do the work for you; please look at this list of things I’ve done and try to find a good fit for me in your organization.

They don’t have the time or energy for that, and it’s frankly not their job – it’s yours. Would you be open to a brief meeting where we can discuss how you can take charge of your direction and next steps? Without a clear fit for specific openings, you’ll be turning in circles for a while. Let me know if you’d like to meet me at one of our career centers to discuss strategy.

 Good stuff. Worth a try if you’re having communication challenges.  Find the tool here.

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