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The 10 Words and Phrases That Motivate Us Most (and The 7 That Don’t!)

Feb 22, 2018 8 min readSelf-Improvement
Photo of Courtney Seiter
Courtney Seiter

Former Director of People @ Buffer

Have you ever been in a meeting where you felt the electricity in the room change based on a single sentence?

Words are incredibly powerful: even a solitary one can win you over, put you out, set your boundaries, and change how others perceive you.

With this kind of power, it’s in our best interest to try to understand the science and psychology of words.

I went hunting for some of the top words and phrases that motivate people to be creative, work together and build relationships.

These are the 10 words and phrases that motivate us (and 7 that have the opposite effect!)

10 powerful words

10 words and phrases that motivate us

1. If: Describing a positive hypothetical improves performance

Here’s a universal truth: No one likes to be wrong, especially in front of other people.

When you’re facing a lot of “I don’t knows” during a brainstorm or tough challenge, there’s a word that can alleviate the pressure of being wrong and open up a pathway of critical thinking: If.

Tim David, author of Magic Words: The Science and Secrets Behind Seven Words That Motivate, Engage, and Influence, employs this magic word in a very specific sentence I plan to borrow a lot:

‘What would you say if you did know?’

As he explains, deploying the magic “if” allows those you’re addressing to think hypothetically, taking away all the pressure that might prevent them from volunteering an answer.

The book also shares research that when people describe a hypothetical outcome in a positive light, it not only increases their expectations for success, it improves their actual performance.

The hypothetical element is the key, triggered by the “if.”

2. Could: Use instead of ‘should’ for more creativity

A similar form of magic happens with the word “could,” especially when you substitute it for its sibling “should.”

Here’s a cool example from The Science of Us:

In a 1987 study, researchers gave participants an assortment of random objects, including a rubber band. Some of them were asked to think about what the objects were, while others were told to think about what the objects could be. Then, they asked participants to erase a mark without using an eraser. The people who’d been primed to think could “were more likely to recognize that a rubber band could be used in lieu of an eraser, compared to those who considered what these objects were.

Though they seem and sound so similar, research shows that “should” tends to narrow one’s field of vision and limits potential answers, while “could” opens up your mind to new possibilities.

Another study, of ethical and moral challenges, found that:

“When encountering ethical dilemmas, shifting one’s mindset from “What should I do?” to “What could I do?” generates moral insight, defined as the realization that ostensibly competing values are not entirely incompatible.”

A whole new train of thought, achieved just by changing one little word.

3. Yes: 3 ‘little yeses’ can help close a deal

Another “magic word” from Tim David: Yes. It’s particularly interesting how one yes can lead to another, as he describes in a sales study:

“The study looked at whether or not getting someone to say yes during a conversation would affect the outcome of that conversation. First, the salespeople went about their business as usual. They were able to close 18 percent of the sales— not bad. However, when they were instructed to get a minimum of three “little yeses” early on in the conversation, suddenly they were able to close 32 percent of the sales.”

“Little yeses” can be any sort of affirmative, even if it comes in response to a question like “You’re here for the 3 p.m. appointment, right?”

4. Together: Makes teams work harder and smarter (up to 48%!)

The word “together” is all about relatedness, belonging and interconnectivity. Powerful stuff for the brain, seeing as belonging is so elemental in our hierarchy of needs.

maslows hierarchy of needs

So it’s not too surprising that using this word can help teams become more efficient.

A Stanford study had participants work on difficult puzzles on their own, although one group was told that they would be working on their task “together” and could receive a tip from a team member.

The results for the participants who heard “together” were astounding. They:

  • Worked 48% longer
  • Solved more problems correctly
  • Had better recall for what they had seen.
  • Said that they felt less tired and depleted by the task
  • Reported finding the puzzle more interesting

“Together” motivates because you feel like you are part of something bigger than yourself.

Relatedly, words like “let’s” and “we” can also help build connection and sense of togetherness, according to Tim David.

5. Thank you: Makes acquaintances more likely to seek a relationship

Gratitude can not only make your life happier—it could also help you further your professional relationships and career.

As research shows, thanking a new acquaintance for their help makes them more likely to seek an ongoing social relationship with you.

In a study of 70 students who provided advice to a younger student, only some were thanked for their advice.

Those who were thanked were more likely to provide their contact details when asked, such as their phone number or email address, for the mentee.

The mentees who gave out thank-yous were also rated as having significantly warmer personalities.

“Saying thank you provides a valuable signal that you are someone with whom a high quality relationship could be formed,” says UNSW psychologist Dr Lisa Williams, who conducted the research.

According to gratitude researcher Jeffrey Froh, these are the five key elements of an effective thank-you:

  1. Be timely.
  2. Compliment the attributes of the benefactor.
  3. . Recognize the intent of the benefactor.
  4. Recognize the costs to the benefactor.
  5. Articulate the benefits.

6. Choose to: Reframe from “have to”

Speaking of gratitude, Marshall Rosenberg, the father of Non-Violent Communication, suggests a simple exercise called “Have to” to “Choose to” that can reframe your life in a big way.

Step 1

What do you do in your life that you don’t experience as playful? List on a piece of paper all those things that you tell yourself you have to do. List any activity you dread but do anyway because you perceive yourself to have no choice.

Step 2

After completing your list, clearly acknowledge to yourself that you are doing these things because you choose to do them, not because you have to. Insert the words “I choose to … “ in front of each item you listed.

Step 3

After having acknowledged that you choose to do a particular activity, get in touch with the intention behind your choice by completing the statement, I choose to … because I want ….

7. And: The best way to state a contrary opinion

Liane Davey, author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done, has some great tips at HBR on making yourself heard during a difficult conversation. One I picked out in particular is when to use “and.”

“When you need to disagree with someone, express your contrary opinion as ‘and.’ It’s not necessary for someone else to be wrong for you to be right,” she says. When you’re surprised to hear something your counterpart has said, don’t interject with a “But that’s not right!” Just add your perspective. Davey suggests something like this: “You think we need to leave room in the budget for a customer event, and I’m concerned that we need that money for employee training. What are our options?”

Dorie Clark, author of Reinventing You, suggests some additional phrases to make sure you’re heard:

  • “Here’s what I’m thinking.”
  • “My perspective is based on the following assumptions . . .”
  • “I came to this conclusion because . . .”
  • “I’d love to hear your reaction to what I just said.”
  • “Do you see any flaws in my reasoning?
  • “Do you see the situation differently?”

8. Because: Makes whatever you ask feel objective and rational

One of the two most important words in blogging is also one of the top words for motivating anyone: Because.

Social psychologist Ellen Langer tested the power of this word by asking to cut in line at a copy machine. She tried three different ways of asking:

  • “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?”
  • “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush?”
  • “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies?” –

60% of those she asked let her cut in line using the first request technique. But when she added the “because?” 94% and 93%, respectively, said OK.

The takeaway: When you want people to take action, always give a reason.

Darlene Price, author of Well Said! Presentations and Conversations That Get Results, says cause-and-effect reasoning works because it “makes your claims sound objective and rational rather than biased and subjective.”

Over at Forbes, Price offers a big list of additional cause-and-effect phrases:

  • Accordingly
  • As a result
  • Caused by
  • Consequently
  • Due to
  • For this reason
  • Since
  • Therefore
  • Thus

And Tim David of Magic Words takes this one step further with what he calls the ABT (Advanced Because Technique).

“The idea behind ABT is to get the person to say ‘because’ to themselves. Instead of giving someone a thousand reasons to do something, try asking them, ‘Why?’ When you do that, they will fill in their own ‘because.’ Now it’s their reasons, not yours.”
cause and effect phrases

9. Others’ names: We have a preference for things connected to ourselves

The state of Virginia has 30 percent more residents named Virginia than average, Louisiana’s got 47 percent more people named Louis, and there are 88 percent more Georgias in Georgia than you’d expect.

This is the Name-Letter Effect, a weird phenomenon that has been proven to show that “because most people possess positive associations about themselves, most people prefer things that are connected to the self (e.g., the letters in one’s name).”

So Dale Carnegie was right on in Buffer favorite How to Win Friends and Influence People: “Remember that a person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”

In fact, there’s evidence that unique brain patterns happen when we hear our own names, as compared to hearing the names of others.

10. Willing: Can turn a “no” into a “yes”

Professor of social interaction Elizabeth Stokoe works often with mediation services that help people deal with disputes.

Analyzing hundreds of calls between mediators and potential clients, she discovered a secret word that changes minds: “Willing.”

She explains in a TED post that many callers are apt to reject mediation on the grounds that the other party is the “kind of person who won’t mediate.”

But when mediators ask people if they would be “willing” to mediate, even resistant callers agreed to try the service.

“Willing” was significantly more effective than other phrasing such as “might you be interested in mediation?” — and it was the only word that achieved a total turnaround from “no” to “yes.”

My theory: it works because if the other party is the kind of person who won’t mediate, then the caller must be the kind of person who will!

Plus: 7 words that have the opposite effect

On the flip side are words that might not seem too detrimental at first glance, but can hurt your trust with your team and even demotivate others.

Jason Fried warns us to beware of the 4-letter words, including:

  • Need
  • Must
  • Can’t
  • Easy
  • Just
  • Only
  • Fast

“When collaborating with others — especially when designers and programmers are part of the mix — watch out for these,” he writes. “Be careful when you use them, be careful when you hear them. They can really get you into trouble.”

beware words

Over to you!

What words never fails to motivate you or those around you? What words do you avoid? I’d love to hear it all in the comments!

Oh, and if you’re hungry for even more word psychology, the Buffer Social blog has 189 Powerful Words That Convert: Write Copy That Gets Your Customer’s Attention Every Time.

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