Back in the day, spring was a time to thoroughly clean one’s house, doing things we don’t do routinely, like washing windows, cleaning pantry shelves, dusting baseboards, or clearing out the fridge. When trees sprout new leaves and flowers, birds sing their mating calls, and the days get longer, we naturally think of sprucing up our lives in various ways.

I suggest we clean up our language—whether spoken or head talk. I don’t mean banning four letter words, but rather, changing self-defeating terms to empowering terms.

You all know that, when we make others wrong, as by criticizing or arguing, they resist our ideas.[1] But we sometimes make ourselves wrong. This actually weakens us mentally, emotionally and physically. It reduces our ability to do many things, including communicating effectively and building consensus.

From my book Bridges to Consensus:

In my classes, I often do an impromptu demonstration in which a trainee holds her arm out, and I try to push it down. Her ability to resist my pushing weakens visibly after I instruct her to engage in a bit of self-critical head talk. Conversely, re-focusing on a legitimate self-compliment boosts her strength back up.

The effect is so strong that even an indirect suggestion that a person is wrong can be weakening. The arm strength demonstration works just as well when the subject replaces the self-criticism by a “have to” statement, such as “I must start exercising more” or even “I have to go grocery shopping.”

Terms such as “have to,” “must,” “should,” and “need to” suggest that we should do something different, in other words, that what we’re doing now is wrong. These terms become so closely associated with wrong in our minds, that they automatically trigger the same dragged-down mood and physical weakness as criticism, even when logic tells us that no criticism is intended, as in “I have to go to a meeting tomorrow.”

I believe so strongly in the subconscious force of such words, that I practice eliminating them as much as possible and recommend that you do, too. When you catch yourself saying (or thinking) weakening words such as “need” or “should,” change them to “want,” “intend,” or the like. “I should exercise more” becomes “I want to exercise more.” “I need to go shopping” becomes “I intend to go shopping.”

To solidify this habit of speech and thought, I even make the switch when playing my favorite game, Yahtzee. Where my play mates might say, “I need four of a kind and a large straight,” I will say, “I have four of kind and large straight open.”

Are you skeptical? I challenge you to try it anyway, with an open mind. It can’t possibly do you any harm, so why not give it a go? Notice how you feel after you’ve changed “need” to “want.” Do it as often as you can for a week or so. How do you feel in general at the end of the week? Try doing it before you curl your biceps. I bet you’ll be able to do more reps than usual.

And of course, I’d love to hear from you about your experience spring cleaning your language.

[1] See Bridges to Consensus, Chapter 4; and Love on the Rocks with a Twist, Study Notes for “You’ll Get Over It”

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