Have you ever meant to ask someone “What’s troubling you,” but instead you said, “What’s wrong with you?”  Wow, similar question, but different words make such a difference in how this question is received.

Words are powerful.  Our words have the power to build up or the power to tear down.  Words can inspire and drive someone forward, or crush the soul and pull someone down.


When I was much younger, I remember studying material from Tony Robbins’ first book, Unlimited Power.  In that book, he shares what he called “Metaprograms.”  One example is “Towards vs. Away.”  People can be motivated in 2 ways, either towards something they want or away from something they don’t want.  One way is a reward or incentive, the other way is a consequence.

Think about the energy you feel when there’s a positive reward out there for completing a task.  This is quite different – and usually more inspiring – than the energy you feel in attempting to avoid a negative consequence.

People who get truly motivated by avoiding the negative are almost always operating at just one step ahead of failure.  By contrast, people who learn to be motivated TOWARDS something they want are usually moving ahead in life on a consistent basis.

I heard Olympic legend Kerri Walsh-Jennings on my friend Christopher Lochhead’s podcast recently.  She said something that resonated with me on this very topic, which was that “she likes winning way more than she hates losing.”  She is truly motivated by looking forward and going for the gold (literally in this case), not by looking over her shoulder and fearing defeat.

What about you?  What is motivating you right now in your life?  Avoiding pain or gaining pleasure?  Mediocre people are motivated largely by avoidance of pain.  Top achievers are motivated TOWARDS positive outcomes.

This whole idea got me thinking about the way I talk to people in my life, particularly the people in my sales organization, and my two most important “mentees,” my kids.

Words matter.  Think about how these corresponding phrases make the recipient feel in the moment. 

In parenting little kids:

Be quiet! vs. Can you use your inside voice?

Stop crying/screaming! vs. Nighttime is quiet time!

You’re fine, get up! vs. What do we do when we fall down?  “Stand back up”

If you don’t finish your dinner, there will be no treats for you tonight. vs. If you finish dinner, I’ll give you an extra treat tonight.

If you don’t get ready for bed by 8pm, there will be no story time tonight. vs. If you get ready for bed by 8pm, we can do an extra story tonight.

Wow, what a mess you made!  Clean it up! vs. Wow, looks like that must have been fun! Can we start cleaning up now?

In Influencing Co-Workers/Employees:

It looks like you need some help with that task. vs. What can I do to help you complete that task?

I need you to you do this or else …. vs. Once you accomplish this goal, we can offer you some new and bigger opportunities.

It won’t be that hard to accomplish that goal. vs. I have faith that you can accomplish hard things!

Small differences in wording can make a big difference in how the message is received!

Over the past few years, I’ve learned a lot from a guy named David Cooperrider, a man known as the father of “Appreciative Inquiry.”  When my friend Jackie Stavros met David at Case Business School, he informed her, “We teach kids differently around here.”  He offered an example as simple as telling kids at the swimming pool, “Walk on the pool deck” vs. “No running on the pool deck,” and contrasted the mental imagery in the minds of those receiving the message.  His lesson was to flip around our questions and our conversations in order to point people towards what you/they want.

Jackie teaches a concept she calls “The Wish Question,” which is: 

“If you had three wishes for ________, what would they be?”

In working with a team to solve problems and create new direction, this can be a great way of FRAMING what could be a negative topic in a positive way.

Cooperrider teaches that “people come alive when they talk about their strengths.”  There’s actually a neurological change that occurs, and people experience more positive emotions, which inevitably leads to higher performance.  When you are in a positive state, your field of vision actually widens.  The parts of your brain that cause that also open up to “see” more opportunities and more solutions.

As you venture through the conversations and interactions of the coming days, catch yourself in those moments when you are framing something negatively.  Start turning these conversations around and using positive motivation, better questions, and ways of getting others to look at what they WANT to have happen instead of the opposite.

This one insight can totally transform your business, your family, and how you feel on a day-to-day basis!


If you enjoyed this blog, please share it on your social media.

2 Comments. Leave new

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.
You need to agree with the terms to proceed