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Words That Change Minds: Mastering the Language of Influence

A. Introduction

How can you trigger, maintain and build upon a person's motivation, and learn to recognize when you are having the opposite effect? This was the focus of a session at the 2001 Ontario Health Promotion Summer School, facilitated by Shelle Rose Charvet, President of Success Strategies, a training and consulting company, and Certified Trainer of Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP). NLP is concerned with how we use our senses to filter experiences, and how we then think, act and react based on the filtered experiences. Using NLP to understand the different ways in which people's filters operate can help you to influence by facilitating an understanding of what motivates, or conversely, leads to inattention among different people. This approach requires development of observation skills in order to detect the differences that filtering creates from one person to the next.

B. Motivational Triggers

Rose Charvet states that knowing your own triggers in terms of preferred sources and types of motivation helps to understand other people's triggers. For example, think about a substantial project that you have been involved with -- at the completion of the project, how did you know whether you did a good job?

While most people tend to lie somewhere on a continuum of motivation which is highly influenced by context, some tend toward internal motivators, others tend towards external motivators. For example, some people judge their own performance based on others' feedback, and therefore may be motivated by external judgements and standards. In contrast, other individuals base their self-assessments entirely on whether they feel that they have done quality work, and thus are less likely to be triggered by external influences. Further, in the completion of projects, some people tend to be motivated by the availability of several options, while others are triggered by established, exact procedures. In addition, some people prefer to focus on innovation and differences, while others prefer to talk about how things remain steady.

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C. Motivational Patterns

In a discussion of motivation, Excel-Ability Learning identifies the following patterns:

* Motivation Direction: Toward, Away From (Is the person energized by their goals or by threats, problems to be solved or prevented?). Toward language includes words such as 'attain', 'obtain,' or 'achieve,' while away from language includes 'avoid,' 'get rid of,' or 'prevent'.

* Motivation Level: Proactive, Reactive (Does the person initiate or wait for others to initiate or need to think and understand before acting?). Proactive language includes 'do it,' or 'get on with it,' whereas reactive language includes 'wait,' 'think about,' and 'understand'.

* Motivation Source: Internal, External (Does the person provide their own motivation and rely on their own judgments or need others for motivation and to provide opinion and direction?). Internal language is reflected in phrases such as 'only you can decide . . .,' while external language tends towards phrases such as 'so-and-so thinks . . .'.

* Motivation Reason: Options, Procedures (Does the person continually look for better ways to do things or do they prefer to follow established procedures?). Options language focuses on 'unlimited possibilities,' 'alternatives,' and 'lots of choice,' while procedures language speaks of 'the right way,' 'tried and true,' or 'first . . . then . . . lastly'.

* Decision Factors: Sameness, Difference (How does the person react to change? How frequently do they need change? Are the motivated by a search for difference or for sameness?). Sameness language includes 'as you already know,' 'like before,' and 'gradual improvement,' while difference language might include 'new,' 'totally different,' and 'one of a kind'.

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D. How Do Triggers for Motivation Apply to Health Promotion and Communication?

In the field of health promotion, we often wish to influence people to act in response to an issue or problem. Understanding what motivates individuals enables us to adjust our language to match the listener's preferred style, facilitating rapport building and enhancing our influence. For example, an internal, options approach focuses on drawing attention to issues and to the possible solutions, whereas an external approach clearly identifies the issue and the necessary course of action. But how do you know where someone is positioned on the motivation continuum?

While observing how people work and react to different situations and issues can help, this is not always possible; for example, when writing materials that will be circulated to a group of people who may differ in motivational orientation. Further, what motivates people depends on the context and circumstances. Thus, Rose Charvet recommends assuming an internal orientation since, once someone has rejected being told what to do, it is difficult to approach the issue again. Thus, while using an external approach with people with internal points of reference may alienate them, using an internal approach and providing options to someone with an external point of reference is less likely to demotivate, especially if you limit the number of options to two or three to avoid overwhelming them, and focus attention on the preferred option. For example, use the present tense for the desired option (e.g., 'this approach will enable us to'), and conditional tense for other options (e.g., 'it would provide'). Such an approach is most likely to trigger people with varying orientations towards motivation.

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E. The Bottom Line

Humans vary in the way in which we think, react and act -- differences which are reflected in our communication patterns. Being aware of such differences and choosing our words wisely is one way to improve our influence, helping us to reach our goals in health promotion.

F. References

Rose Charvet, Shelle. (2001). Words That Change Minds - Mastering the language of influence. Ontario Health Promotion Summer School Curriculum Session.

Excel-Ability Learning