Positive Language Is a Force for Change

One school district recently decided to shake things up in their anti-bullying campaign. They realized their “Stomp out bullying” message was negative in tone, even though the goal was a good one. Not only was the word “stomp” reminiscent of the very violence they were trying to discourage, but they were only telling kids what they shouldn’t do — not what to do instead.

As a result, they changed the campaign to “Be kind. We’re all on the same team.” This new messaging focuses on positive language that encourages being intentional with acts of respect and kindness, rather than just avoiding bullying. It’s a subtle difference, but one with big implications.

Positive vs. Negative

Positive language tells people what’s right; negative language tells people what’s wrong. It also discourages them on a number of levels: It lowers self-esteem, makes people believe they can’t make a difference, and increases the likelihood of a negative outcome. Positive language, on the other hand, increases optimism and encourages people to believe in their own ability to drive change. And when people believe they can make a difference, they do.

Now, you may be thinking that the world isn’t perfect and that, sometimes, you can’t avoid communicating negative information. Right? Wrong. Even negative information can be delivered in a positive way. Think about the difference between “We’re rejecting your loan application because you failed to provide all the information that we requested” and “We were happy to receive your loan application, and there is some additional information we need. We’ve highlighted the pertinent areas, and we’ll be delighted to take another look just as soon as you can get it back to us.” Again, the difference is subtle, but profound.

The Right Opportunities

The hard part is recognizing negative language when you see it. It’s so ingrained in our culture that we don’t even realize we’re using it. Look at my opening sentence, for example: “Shake things up” is inherently negative. Not only does “shake” imply violence, but the whole phrase suggests that there was something wrong that had to be fixed.

It can be difficult to weed out all negative language. Instead, why not look for opportunities to be positive and kind? Whether you’re communicating orally or in writing, use words that will uplift, inspire, and encourage your audience. If you can accomplish that, any hidden negativity will disappear on its own.

Instead of focusing on rules for what kids can’t do, we can focus on a positive tone: “Play kind.” I’m willing to bet that most kids will rise to the occasion. And if they can do it, so can we. What can you do to make a commitment to using positive language?

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