Choose Your Words with Extra Care When Recognizing People

Giving people recognition is not hard to do. But recognizing those you meet and work with should not be treated so glibly that it is thoughtlessly done.

The words you use to verbally express your appreciation or use in your written or digital thank you notes, need to be done with care and consideration. Put more time into thinking about what you will say and realize the impact it will have on people.

Examine the following ideas closely to pick up on ways your vocabulary choice and phrasing of recognition could change.

Effective Word Choice Takes Time

You probably know there are positive and negative affective words. You’ll also find that besides a positive and negative vocabulary, there are also words that have a neutral, connotation. Connotations are the feeling or idea suggested by a particular word. 

For example, “courageous” has a positive connotation, “confident’ is neutral, and, of course, “conceited” is negative. Sentiment analysis shows there are more negative words in our everyday language that positive. For example, there are more negative emotional words (62 percent) than positive words (32 percent) in the English dictionary.  

One study shows 50% of words from people’s working vocabulary are negative, 30% are positive, and 20% are neutral.

Consider the everyday example of the meteorologist giving their daily weather report. They will indicate that there is a 30% percent chance of clouds. But doesn’t that mean there is a 70% chance of sun? Yet, why didn’t they say that? It seems negative news and negative words travel faster and stay longer in the brain than positive ones do.

In their jointly written book, Words Can Change Your Brain, Dr. Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist at Thomas Jefferson University, and Mark Robert Waldman, a communications expert state, “a single word has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress.”

Below is a short list of exemplary positive vocabulary words you can use:

  • absolutely. accepted. acclaimed. accomplish. accomplishment.
  • beaming. beautiful. believe. beneficial. bliss.
  • calm. celebrated. certain. champ. champion.
  • dazzling. delight. delightful. distinguished. divine.
  • earnest. easy. ecstatic. effective.
  • fabulous. fair. familiar. famous.
  • generous. genius. genuine. giving.
  • handsome. happy. harmonious. healing.

Your goal is to use positive phrasing and positive words whenever you recognize people. You are trying to pair positive emotions with your choice of recognition expressions.

My Encounter with Choosing the Right Words

Back in the day when I was a speech-language pathologist, I found myself becoming a closet psychologist when I questioned how to give more effective feedback to the patients I served, who had sustained Traumatic Brain Injuries.

When you can no longer speak properly, as with other physical disabilities, who are you? How do you communicate your identity and self-worth? Your self-esteem is ten notches lower than it ever was before.

To say to a patient “Good job” after getting only one or two sounds right out of ten consonant-vowel combinations didn’t cut it. Truly those one or two sounds were amazing and took a huge amount of effort and willpower to say and was far better than zero the day before.

But saying “good job” means nothing for getting 2 out of 10 right to someone who could speak without difficulty beforehand.

What do you say to someone like this in rehabilitation to help them stay motivated and progress them with their therapy goals?

Digging into the research literature I found out that there are perceptions we hold based on the linguistic expressions we use. We derive meaning from what people say beyond the primary meaning of the words we use.

For example, I learned you have to be more specific with your feedback.

I tried expressions like, “You did an amazing job concentrating on the ‘buh’ ‘ah’ sounds” or “You put a lot of effort with you your lips and tongue when you said the ‘mmm” ‘uh’ sounds.”

Put yourself in this patient’s shoes. If your self-esteem is shot and you don’t believe in yourself anymore, when I say “you” and you don’t believe in “YOU” then you actually discount or negate such feedback. So that kind of wording didn’t work.

What the rehabilitation research showed was that using “I” talk phrases was better than using “You” talk phrases. Let me show you what I mean by “I” talk phrases and explain why it is so powerful to use.

When there is a positive relationship between two people then “I’ talk phrases are the most beneficial. With the clinician/patient relationship I had with this one young patient it was a positive one. He knew I was trying to help him communicate even if we had boring and rote treatment plans. He knew what the goal was for him.

I started using “I” talk phrasing with my feedback. Statements like, “I could tell you really concentrated on producing the ‘buh’ ‘ah’ sound and I really liked that,” or “I saw how you put a lot of effort with your lips and tongue when you said the ‘mmm’ ‘uh’ sounds.”

Because of the positive relationship we had, he believed I meant the best for him. When I said he did something well, even if it was only one or two sounds said well, he believed my feedback. Then I would ask him, “Who did that?”, and then he nonverbally communicated to me by pointing at himself in an affirming way. That’s when I knew we had broken through the negative self-talk he played in his mind.

His rate of progress with speech production continued to exceed the expectations of many and he left the hospital being able to communicate basic expressions of everyday needs.

Additional Research Findings

Subsequent to my early days of researching feedback I learned that performance can be improved by enhancing the quality of the feedback information you give people.

They have also found that great feedback contains both cognitive aspects, such as quantitative or observable measures (think my describing the speech behaviors and sounds), along with affective or more emotional content of feedback (like when I said “really liked that” but it was weak).

This affirms the principles I have put into my Two-Part Specificity Rule™, where the first part of your feedback should specifically describe the Action or the behaviour the person did that you are recognizing. The second part of the rule recommends you tell the person specifically how what they did made a difference or Impact to others.

Here’s an example for you,

“John, I want to commend you for reinforcing the use of the lock out/tag out safety procedures with the equipment this morning. I know you helped prevent an accident with those working on that station. Thank you!”

Notice the first sentence specifically mentions the Action and the second sentence specifically shares the Impact made by the steps John took.

Such recognition and feedback statements have a stronger positive connotation. They affect people emotionally and leave people with a higher perception of the quality of the recognition they received.

The choice to use positive words and phrases communicates a lot more than what you say.  You set a positive rapport with employees and peers and everyone else you interact with. Positive words breed positive results. The also impact how you are perceived as a manager or supervisor.

Using positive vocabulary affects the emotions you are feeling and when spoken to someone else your word choice influences their emotions too. This makes giving recognition a powerful thing to be doing.

Recognition Reflection: Do you use sufficient care with the words you choose and the phrasing with how you recognize people?

Roy is no longer writing new content for this site (he has retired!), but you can subscribe to Engage2Excel’s blog as Engage2Excel will be taking Roy’s place writing about similar topics on employee recognition and retention, leadership and strategy.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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