You can turn pretty much any bad situation into an okay (or even good) one with the right language. Case in point: “I ate the last cookie” can become “help yourself to the ice cream, I’m just heading to the shop to buy more cookies.” How can you stay mad at someone who says that? There’s an excellent alternative (ice cream), as well as a solution (more treats on the way). This is the difference positive communication can make in how you’re perceived.
Whether you’re talking about cookies or deadlines, when it comes to talking on a professional level, being able to put a positive spin on things is a skill worth having. Not only does it keep the mood bright and friendly — but, it also keeps people motivated and excited to help.
Being able to communicate positively plays an important part in client and stakeholder relationships, team effectiveness, and general collaboration. Here are 10 actionable tips you can apply today.
How to communicate positively
Learning the art of positive communication is something you can put into practice immediately. While some elements will take a little practice, you’ll get the hang of most right away.
1. Steer clear of negative words
Negative words like ‘can’t,’ ‘stop,’ ‘won’t,’ ‘unable,’ and ‘don’t’ make the listener feel bad, defensive, or like they’ve been forced into a corner. While it won’t be practical to cut them out entirely, try to reword sentences to put a positive spin on things as much as possible. For example, instead of saying, “I can’t do this in that amount of time,” try saying, “If you can give me two more hours, it’ll be on your desk.” And instead of saying, “Don’t leave coffee cups on your desk overnight,” try saying, “Please clear the coffee cups off your desk before you go home.” To the listener, the second option in both examples is positive and constructive.
2. And avoid forceful words
When it comes to inspiring action, a light touch is usually better than force. Try to steer clear of words like ‘you have to,’ or ‘you must.’ Telling people what to do can make them feel told off, defensive, or as though they have no say in the matter, which is a recipe for hard feelings.
If, for example, you have a new process to introduce, try to frame it as something that will benefit the team. Or offer it as a solution to problems that they themselves have defined, effectively positioning it as something they want. And, when addressing a group, bear in mind that phrases like ‘we can’ can sound way more motivating than ‘we should.’
3. Always offer an alternative
Offering an alternative can soften the blow of a ‘no,’ even if the person asking rejects it. If you can’t do a job when someone asks, rather than telling them it’s impossible, offer to do the work as soon as you can, and offer a concrete date as an alternative. This creates a positive atmosphere and keeps the conversation moving forward.
Try to always keep their needs in mind and offer a solution. This is a great skill to learn, especially for those who struggle to say ‘no’. It acknowledges both of your needs and makes you look like someone who’s willing to go the extra mile, even though you are essentially turning down their exact request.
4. Look for the good in the bad
As well as avoiding negative words, you can adjust your demeanor to help keep things positive, even In a situation that’s, well… most than a bit unpleasant. It’s possible to train yourself to focus on small, positive things you can then include in your conversation. For example, if a client is unhappy with the work, you can focus on all the other times that client was happy. You can also talk about how it’s an opportunity to learn and grow. Or you can focus on making everyone on the team the perfect cup of tea to keep them going. Keeping your attitude positive can keep the tone bright when things aren’t so good.
5. Be specific
Clear communication is a must if you want your listeners to leave feeling positive. Diluting the conversation with needless details can turn a positive message into a confusing and, therefore, negative one. Try to stick to one point, or if you have several to discuss, work through them slowly and in an order that makes sense. Keep the language simple and jargon-free, too: If you use impenetrable language, your listeners will switch off, or worse — feel resentful.
6. Be helpful
Kind words diffuse tension. Offering to help, or asking someone what you can do to make a situation better, can go a long way toward keeping things positive. This doesn’t mean accepting all the blame; it just means sharing the responsibility. Offer a helping hand, and the listener will soon be smiling.
7. Set expectations
If there’s a difficult topic that needs discussing, lay the groundwork before you begin. Tell your listener the length and the nature of the conversation. This can help lower anxious thoughts and help the listener mentally prepare. If you’re talking to a lead, letting them know how long the conversation should take will help them feel in control and diffuse negative feelings that might have surfaced.
8. Keep your body language positive
Words make up a surprisingly small part of communication (around 7%). The rest is facial expressions, body language, and tone. Smile when you talk to someone, keep your body relaxed, and stand with an open posture (in other words, no crossed arms). The same goes for when you’re talking on the phone: The person on the other end might not be able to see you, but it is possible to hear a smile.
9. Keep stress under wraps
It’s stressful having to deliver bad news or tell someone no. Unfortunately, anxiety can spoil your ability to deliver a message effectively. It’s also infectious: If you feel stressed, it’s likely your listener will pick up on this and feel stressed too. The good news is, these negative emotions can be tamed.
Before the conversation happens, take some time to think about what you want to say. Practice some breathing exercises, and take notes into the meeting. When you’re there, speak slowly (nerves sometimes make us speed up), and if necessary, use a few stalling techniques, like asking the person to repeat the question, or telling them you’d like a little more time to think about something. Remember: You don’t need to know all the answers there and then. Asking for a follow-up chat is absolutely fine.
10. Keep online communication positive
Whether you’re chatting to remote workers or sending an email to a client, choosing the right words can make a big difference to the way your message lands. Most of the same tips above apply: Choose positive words and reframe the message to be constructive. Offer alternatives and keep your tone helpful and friendly. Alongside all of this, make sure you choose the right communication channels for delivering your message. For example, letting someone go will need to be done face-to-face (or via video call) rather than chat app or email. At the other end of the scale, if you’re casually checking in on a remote worker to see how they’re doing, a quick note on your team’s chat app is perfect.
Choosing the right words — whether spoken or written — and delivering them in the best possible way can turn difficult conversations and bad situations into something good. At its heart, this is exactly what positive communication is: It’s not about avoiding negative topics or sharing unpleasant news with a smile. It’s about mitigating conflict and using language that reassures, motivates, and inspires action. It’s communication that leaves both you and the listener feeling good both during and after the conversation has taken place.