The Language of Frailty

by Jennifer Miller on September 20, 2009

in Communication

Words fascinate me.  Walking into a book store jazzes me the way some people invest emotionally in sports or music. From my first published work at age 13 (op-ed piece in our local newspaper) to being a Spanish major in college, to conducting Communications Skills workshops for employees, language has always been more than just “talking” to me.

My fellow bloggers Mary Jo Asmus and Art Petty recently co-wrote a great blog post on the impact a leader’s words can have on the team he/she leads.  That idea really resonated with me and became amplified as I re-read Now, Discover Your Strengths for a book review on this blog.  On page 33 of that book, the authors state:

The language of human weakness is rich and varied. There are meaningful differences in the terms neurosis, psychosis, depression, mania [etc]     . . . In fact, this language of frailty is so widespread that most of us non-experts probably use it pretty accurately. By contrast, the language of human strength is sparse.

The “language of frailty”. For days after reading that phrase, I kept coming back to it.  What is it about language that keeps people focused on the negative and not the positive? My own experience in working with teams bears this out.  When I facilitate a workplace dynamics session, I’ll ask the group to create two lists: 

1)      What makes it easy to work with someone?

2)      What makes it difficult to work with someone?

Guess which list is longer and is more quickly generated by the participants?  Yep, list #2.

 Why are we prone to saying what we don’t want rather than what we do want?  Studies show that people understand positively worded statements more quickly than negatively worded ones, so this phenomenon seems counterintuitive.

 Anyone else out there intrigued by the concept of “the language of frailty”?

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Mary Jo Asmus September 21, 2009 at 4:08 am

Hi Jennifer,

I agree with your post! Following the same thinking, I find that it is easier for leaders to be critical than to praise; to find fault comes more naturally than to find what is right. I’m not surprised about the lists you ask people to generate.

The interesting thing is that when someone comes along who naturally chooses to use words that uplift and inspire – many seem to be attracted to him/her. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could create a “Tipping Point” for acceptance and skill in using such positive language? How different our world might be.

Deirdre September 23, 2009 at 4:31 am

What great questions:

1) What makes it easy to work with someone?
2) What makes it difficult to work with someone?

From a completely ego-centric perspective, easy = doing it my way without a lot of dialogue and conversation. But the older I get, the more I appreciate the people in question #2 because they challenge me. I need to look a what I am doing that makes the situation challenging and own some of it, at least. 🙂
One of my colleagues has Positivity as a Strength (in Strengths Assessment) and being around her is an absolute JOY. And its so natural for her.

Great post.

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