The Power of Words


Didier Marlier

September 26, 2009

From Disruption to Engagement

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One year ago, “Scientific American Mind” published an article[1] claiming that “How we characterize an issue affects how we think about it!” The authors analyzed the Bush administration’s choice of words in response to 9/11 events.

For the authors, the words and metaphors that were used, determined the strategic response the US administration. They compared the response suggested by these words with those that could have been generated by a different characterization.

“War on Terror” (the terminology chosen by the Bush administration) implies:

  • Threat perceived as global and coming from another nation, ethnic group, religious confession, race etc…
  • National unity, no dissent tolerated (unpatriotic)
  • Military solution, the President as commander in chief, Restriction on civil liberties accepted, Torture tolerated, “Collateral damages” unavoidable

The strategic consequences of this “social construct of reality” were disastrous:

  • Combating terrorist violence by state violence alienates population
  • Military warfare is counterproductive in fighting an ideology
  • Al Qaeda is an organic body, not an organization nor a nation with territory, government, buildings and army: an amorphous network does not capitulate as a country. How do we know we won?

The authors compare this with another three very different scenarios, coming as a result from the use of different wordings: “Fighting crime” (a police operation with different ethics and consequences to an army one), “Containing epidemic” (where the problem is the epidemic and the priority is in understanding where it comes from and what caused it) or “Stemming prejudice” (building bridges with the “other side” and isolating the trouble makers). Analysis in hindsight is an unfair exercise, but it is obvious that the results of G. W. Bush “war” would have been very different should he have chosen other words and metaphors.

The same is true for business leadership: the words we use in our business meetings, the metaphors by which we describe our challenges shape-up the construction of reality that our people will architect in their minds. “Leadership is about creating conditions for people to do and be their best” says Chris Parker ( the words we use are creating our people’s context and response to it. Two short clips illustrate it:

  • The awareness test ( builds on a known research. How many passes does the white team make? See how these words condition your vision of the environment.
  • The violin player ( suggested on our blog by Alexandre T. Pauperio, is another great example: since the context, mental construct isn’t properly set, nobody on that rush hour notices the privilege of been entertained by one of the world’s masters in violin, until a lady…

Prior to engaging our teams intellectually and emotionally, we would be well inspired to reflect on the choice of our words and metaphors.

Thank you for the many of you who commented our latest post by e.mails and via this blog’s comments, have a good week. On my way to São-Paulo…

[1] (“Talking about Terrorism”, A. Kruglanski, M. Crenshaw, J. Post & J. Victoroff in Scientific American Mind pages 59-65 October/November 2008


  1. Simonas

    One guy wan his election campaign using words “Yes, We can”……

    In old times there were not only bears, eagles, ducks and other animals to appear on coat of arms, shields and flags. But also written words or messages to the friends and enemies.

    However, even the pictures worked as symbols of messages addressed around.

    Using words as symbols by a leader can bring lot of visible&unvisible benefit, if they are used in a right form, time and manner. E.g. in:

    – setting focus, priorities and guidelines,
    – expressing values behind,
    – giving strategic insight,
    – bringing fight/team spirit,
    – showing what this is something more than just a new business case; this is also everyone’s personal fight/choise ….

    However, the leader should be clear about that the symbols in use mean something in others life…

    The best one I picked recently was from FIBA: We are Basketball. Everything is possible! (doesn’t sound cool enough…?) It really goes to self-consciousness with strong programming.

    I just wonder that no one of global corporates put such words to their leaders lips….Now it is occupied for basketball.

    Probably, there are too much words spoken/written in today’s corporate life. Maybe sometimes it would make sence to paint a duck…

  2. didier

    Thank you Simonas… I keep in mind the powerful “Don’t think of a pink elephant” that the NLP people use to demonstrate how words can take our mind over. Thank you for your well thought of comments. Haven’t forgotten our discussions about History of the Balts Republics (and before) during “Inspiring Leader”. Have a good week Didier

  3. Christy

    Reading your article reminded me of the inspiring work of Dr. EMOTO. His research is published in various books of which the most famous is “The hidden messages in water”.
    Following Emoto’s theory, each word has its own vibration, therefore its own impact on its environment. One of his amazing experiments consists of freezing water with the contact of various words written on a piece of paper. Water exposed to the vibration of “kind” words appears like bright and shiny, complex and coloured, reminding motives of snow flakes. You should see frozen water exposed to the word LOVE…..
    Whereas exposed to negative words, the forms are incomplete, asymmetrical, with tern colours. Can you imagine the impact of this study on us, human beings mostly constituted of liquid? (Not mentioning of course that water is conscious)
    We communicate with words but we also think with words! Don’t we carry a heavy responsibility each time we use them?

  4. didier

    Thank you Christy,
    I must admit I hadn’t heard of Masaru Emoto until you told me about him. Checking under Wikipedia, I see that his works and intuitions are not necessarily “bought-in” by the scientific community. However wouldnt that be a danger of Cognitive Dissonance to reject some of his conclusions under that sole pretext. I also heard of scientists claiming that plants do react to positive or negative affections from humans… So why not water. In any case, I like your intuition which invites us to measure carefully the weight of our words. THANK YOU!!!

  5. Alexandre Tocchetto Pauperio

    There is a old frasis in portuguese that said “Everything begins trough words”. The communication is very important today, especially for the organizations. The teams have a lot of dificulties from wrong words and it’s dangerous for business. Let’s use stories, metaphors and words correctly. It needs responsability, environment and knowledge.

  6. didier

    Thank you Alexandre, and along those lines, I was wondering (challenge for you and your partners at BRAIN (Brasil Innovation): What would be the right metaphor to illustrate and help the market understand the incomparable and novel offer you bring regarding the theme of innovation? May be a good thing to work on. Thanks a lot, once again, for sharing your helpful thoughts and experience. Didier

  7. Marvin

    Completely agree. Leaders have incredible responsibility in their choice of words, and especially in their choice of questions. Think of the difference in people’s reaction to these two approaches:
    1) What is going wrong here and what are you doing to fix it?
    2) What is working well and how can we get more of it?
    The right questions open people’s minds (and hearts) to possibilities and help create the conditions where they can come true. The wrong ones make them close up defensively and react out of fear or anger.
    Some great research by Fredrickson & Losada (2005) showed convincingly the vital importance of positive, constructive behaviours (mostly words) to the performance of teams. In a beautifully designed set of controlled experiments they showed the best performing teams have a ratio of at least 3:1 positive to negative interactions between team members.
    As people become more aware of this type of research social constructionism is bound to become more widely accepted. Maybe it will even be taught at business school!
    PS Social constructionism is of course at the heart of Appreciative Inquiry and helps explain why the technique is so powerful. Fundamentally, it shifts the pendulum in on organisation from mostly negative conversations to mostly positive conversations, with far-reaching effects.

  8. didier

    Thank you Marvin,
    I guess lots of us will follow you there too. We are very fond of Losada’s research and find very useful the way you are linking between those different topics. Would you be willing to explore further with whomever is interested about Appreciative enquiry, Losada and Logos, Ethos and Pathos? Thank you for this generous contribution

  9. Michael Newman

    I too am a huge fan of Fredrickson and Losada’s work and have recently been using it to support newly forming management teams who have the rare opportunity to select and create their new culture . The reaction has been highly positive as people realise that the positive / negative ratio creates an ‘expansive emotional space’ and allows the formation of high quality and sustained connections between people. These in turn enable and encourage people to explore each other’s perspectives more openly and also to look outside the team/BU/Company/industry for ideas, inspiration or benchmarks. Without the appropriate ratio of behaviours, teams are invariably egocentric and internally focussed; some can get locked into cycles of negotiation or bloody definition battles and languish in the low performance zone; whilst others drift along in mediocrity, using the same old tools and techniques to approach new situations.
    As this is a ‘Power of Words’ thread I have a specific example of how words can change the whole dynamic of a team or meeting. Often in teams of smart, competence-driven individuals, there is a habit where ideas or presentations prompt others to immediately give feedback by pointing out the flaw in the argument, the inappropriate assumption, or some issue with the data. This is done (normally) with positive intent, to improve the decision or analysis. However the impact on someone who has invested much time in preparation or is passionate about an idea can be devastating. The impact is magnified if the feedback comes from a person of high significance, for example the boss, a content expert, or even a hero in the organisation. In such cultures, even if there is no specific challenge contained in a reaction, people are often conditioned that a criticism is on its way and therefore are waiting for the attack. In extremis they can even find criticism within positive responses, because “that is what I was expecting”. Also, a defensive posture will often trigger the challenger to embark on further forensic analysis of the argument “because your uncertainty about the data probably means there are further flawed assumptions buried in there somewhere; we need to find them to make sure we don’t get this one wrong”.
    So how do we unlock these patterns? I have been teaching the teams to label their challenges. By making the statement “Can I challenge the assumption about x and y?” and then pausing for a moment, the following benefits are generated.
    1. The recipient knows which element is under scrutiny; he or she does not have to wonder if this is an attack, and if so, where the blow will fall. They can therefore listen more attentively to the question or statement because the context and content are explicit.
    2. They are primed for a challenge and understand someone is disagreeing. This will inevitably set up a different style of interaction than, for example, the question “Could you clarify what you mean by point z?” or “Can I summarize my understanding about point z to check we are seeing it the same way?” Malcolm Gladwell, in his entertaining and thought provoking book ‘Blink’ provides myriad examples about such ‘priming’ and how our cognitions in the first few seconds or microseconds can have such an impact over subsequent events.
    3. It gives the presenter the opportunity to say “please could we leave questions and challenges until the end” or “I’ve got a couple more points on assumption x; could I share those before we explore your viewpoint”. Of course, if the instinctive response to the question “Can I challenge that?” is always a resolute “NO” (delivered through words, tone of voice, or body language), then the presenter deserves to discover the power of a different sort of words and some robust ‘coaching’ about their attitude to challenge or feedback.
    4. The challenger, by being obliged to label his or her intentions, has the opportunity for an internal, self-regulatory check to establish whether the intervention is purposeful, rather than just fulfilling a personal need to speak. By requiring people to examine and make explicit their intentions, it can also remind them that it might be useful to say “I agree with points a,b and c”; this demonstrating attention and support, before launching their contrary point of view.
    I realise this contribution is quite long, but I am highly passionate about the impact I have seen this simple behaviour have on teams and individuals. “Can I challenge you on ….” are highly powerful words.


  10. didier

    Thank you Gerd for having shared this on your Tweeter!!! Didier

  11. Marvin Faure

    Michael makes several very good points that I would like to support.

    The role of emotions in the work environment is too often underestimated (or even ignored). Fredrickson’s “Broaden and Build” theory provides a convincing explanation for the commonplace observation: people work much better with other people when positive emotions dominate, rather than the opposite. Positive emotions allow people to relax, cooperate, be creative and listen to each other (amongst other positive effects). Negative emotions, on the other hand, inevitably generate a “fight or flight” response, with negative effects on climate, cooperation, productivity and the work outputs in general.

    Any rational manager, knowing the above, should go out of his or her way to create a work environment where positive emotions dominate. So why don’t we see this more often?

    One reason, as Michael says, is that smart people don’t usually see themselves as being negative when pointing out a flaw in the argument: to them this is constructive, helpful and “normal”. On top of that, managers generally see it as their role to “spot the flaw”, and can’t imagine any other way to go about it.

    So it’s not enough to convince people intellectually that they should respect a positive/negative ratio of 3:1 – they think they are already doing it! We need to help them actually do it.

    I think part of this is increasing self-awareness so that people will self-censure questions that add no value and are not being asked for the right reasons. The major part, however, is teaching a process for providing constructive feedback: i.e. how to criticise or question certain aspects of an idea without being destructive.

    I therefore like Michael’s technique of teaching people HOW to introduce a potential negative, through the “Can I challenge the assumption about…” question.

    Another approach is to adopt a highly disciplined approach to decision-making, such as de Bono’s Six Hats method. I like this because it dissociates the idea from the person and gets the whole team involved in analysing it from six distinct angles.

    More than words, I think there is also a fundamental process issue here. Too many leaders see their role as being to provide the answers. Can I challenge the assumptions behind that? How might things be different in the organisation if the leaders saw their role as being primarily one of asking the right questions?


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