Little words make big change

You think to yourself ‘I have to exercise’ but it’s cold and windy outside and you struggle to get out the door. Next time, try a simple change to your words and think - ‘I want to exercise.’ These words automatically double your chances of strapping on those runners and doing your workout. The latter words ‘I want to’ indicate you are in control of the situation, whereas the words ‘I have to’ generate the feeling that the task is being forced upon you.

Here are a few other words to use to motivate big changes:

Social psychologist Ellen Langer conducted an experiment where she asked to cut in-front of a queue to use the photocopy machine using different statements. When she asked “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?” – 60% of people let her in. However, if she used the word ‘because’ in her response and provided a reason e.g. “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush?” 94% of people let her in. Even when the reason is not very convincing e.g. “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies?” – 93% of people still said yes!

Other similar studies have shown that the trigger word ‘because’ was all that was needed to stimulate action in people. Similarly whenever you are introducing change in the workplace, explaining the reason for the change is important to getting people on board with the change.

Generally people like to feel needed and want to help others.  Researcher Elizabeth Stokoe found when people were asked whether they were interested in an activity, such as making a presentation on a certain topic, they might answer yes or no. But if the question was phrased “are you ‘willing’ to make a presentation on X?”, people were more likely to say yes.

If you are trying to change someone’s behaviour when they first might say no, try asking them if they would be ‘willing’ to try.

And finally, Carol Dweck is famous for her studies on fixed versus growth mindsets, where those with a fixed mindset believe intellect and talent are innate and you can’t develop them, whereas those with a growth mindset believe with effort and practise, they can improve their intelligence and skills.

Dweck found those with fixed mindsets were limiting themselves to learning, change and growth. She found from numerous studies that children with a fixed mindset were operating from the ‘now’, whereas the children with a growth mindset were operating from the ‘not yet.’

If at first you or your team members say they can’t do something, try adding the word yet.  By adding the word ‘yet’ you are changing your mindset to believing that you can improve and achieve your goals with hard work and persistence.  Those that use the word ‘yet’ are more likely to improve their skills and knowledge.

Although words are a powerful tool of persuasion and inspiring action for change, it’s important to note that the delivery of the above words should be genuine and the intention of them will reflect positively.


189 Powerful Words That Convert: Write Copy That Gets Your Customer’s Attention Every Time, Kevin Lee
I Have to Do It or I Want to Do It? External motivation can undermine willpower. Timothy A Pychyl
Three Magic Words That Help Drive Change. Amantha Imber
The Power of Yet: Do You Believe You Can Improve? Sam Thomas Davies

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