Negative language leads to confusion and a poor image

When we express ourselves in a negative way, listeners may misconstrue our message. Even worse, they may come away with the impression that we're being obstructive rather than supportive and helpful. Calvin Sun offers some thoughts on achieving better clarity and a more positive impact with just a small shift in how we express ourselves.

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The Columbus, Ohio, broken-dam rumor began... about noon of March 12, 1913. High Street... was loud with the placid hum of business.... Suddenly somebody began to run... Somebody else began to run. Another man... broke into a trot. Inside of ten minutes, everybody on High Street... was running. A loud mumble gradually crystallized into the dread word "dam." "The dam has broke!" Two thousand people were abruptly in full flight.

Order was restored and fear dispelled finally by means of militiamen... bawling through megaphones: "The dam has not broken!" At first this tended only to add to the confusion and increase the panic, for many stampeders thought the soldiers were bellowing "the dam has now broken," thus setting an official seal of authentication on the calamity.

Negative phrases pose several problems in communications. For one thing, they can cause confusion.

In his short story collection My Life and Hard Times, American humorist and author James Thurber wrote an account titled "The Day the Dam Broke," describing an incident in his home town. In the spring of 1913, a misinterpretation of an announcement caused additional panic when citizens confused the word "not" for "now." Similar confusion might occur if listeners failed to hear the "not," leading them to the opposite meaning.

Confusion is one reason to avoid negative expression. However, a more important one is that of image. People react to us, and shape their perceptions of us, based on the way we say things to them. Think about what an IT department typically will tell a customer who requests something. Maybe you've heard these statements yourself, or maybe you've said them to a customer:

  • We can't do that.
  • We can't start until we get the requirements.
  • We can't help you unless you log off.

How would you react if someone said these things to you? What would you think of that person? Most likely, you would think of them as a pain in the neck or as someone who's standing in your way. Your customer probably thinks the same thing.

When you can, try to make your statements positive ones. Instead of focusing on what you (or they) can't do, focus instead on what CAN be done. In other words, try to eliminate "don't," "won't," "not," "no," and similar words. Yes, there will be times when re-expressing an idea positively will make it too complicated. With practice, however, you probably can rephrase 90 to 95 percent of the time.

For example:

  • "We can't do that" becomes "That's going to be a problem, but here's what we CAN do instead."
  • "We can't start until we get requirements" becomes "Please give us the requirements so we can start."
  • "We can't help you unless you log off" becomes "Please log off so we can help you."

In all of these examples, the rephrased statement tends to leave a better impression on the listener. Instead of coming across as an obstacle, the speaker comes across more as someone who is trying and willing to help. Customers who sense this attitude are likely to be easier to work with and to react favorably toward you.

A variation of this issue involves negative questions. Suppose you ask a customer, "You're not at the current release?" and the customer says "Yes." What does the customer mean? That answer could signal two opposite things:

  • Yes, that's right, I'm not at the current release.
  • Yes, I AM at the current release.

When I conduct training sessions on customer service, I actually present this situation to attendees and ask them to vote on which meaning they believe the customer intends. Usually the answers are divided half and half, illustrating the confusing nature of the question.

Because confusion in the world of IT customer service is generally undesirable, avoid asking negative questions of others. Instead, consider the following:

  • Rephrase the question positively. For example, "Are you at the current release?" or "Are you at an older release?"
  • Asking an open-ended question. For example: "What release are you at?"
  • The same applies if someone asks you a negative question. In that case, the best approach is to avoid answering with a "yes" or "no." Instead:
  • Answer with a positive statement. For example: "I AM at the current release" or "I'm at an older release."
  • Rephrase the question yourself and then answer it. For example: "Am I at the current release? No I'm not."

By avoiding negative expressions wherever possible and using positive phrasing instead, you can project a more positive image and communicate more clearly.

Customer problems?

Do you have a particular customer service challenge or question? Drop me a note describing the situation (feel free to disguise the identities of those involved), and I'll see if I can offer any advice.


Calvin Sun works with organizations in the areas of customer service, communications, and leadership.


Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.

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