Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 23, Issue 5;   February 1, 2023: The Big Power of Little Words

The Big Power of Little Words

by

Big, fancy words, like commensurate or obfuscation, tend to be more noticed than the little everyday words, like yet or best. That might be why the little words can be so much more powerful, steering conversations where their users want them to go.
Cracking walnuts with a nutcracker

Cracking walnuts with a nutcracker. The nutcracker is probably the most familiar example of exploiting the power of leverage. Using a nutcracker, we can apply more force to the walnut than we can unaided. If FN is the force applied to the nut; FH the force you supply with your hand; DN the distance from the nutcracker hinge to the nut; and DH is the distance from the hinge to your hand; then FH/FN=DN/DH. Even though we can't describe the power of words so mathematically, the smaller and more common the word, the greater is the chance that it can carry power. For example, saying that you graduated from Ohio State University has some effect. Saying that you graduated from THE Ohio state University has a different effect.

Image by domeckopol, courtesy Pixabay.com.

Most of us have lost respect for the dozens of little words we use every day. Some of these words we use (or hear) every hour. The effects of these little words can be wonderful or catastrophic, and sometimes, both at once. To be specific, I'm thinking about words like only, always, yet, and frankly. The power they have comes from the frequency with which we use them, and the way we use them. They've all taken on secondary meanings that can overpower their literal meaning. And that secondary meaning is the basis of the big power of these little words.

In a previous post, "Corrosive Buts," Point Lookout for July 9, 2003, I examined the effects of but, which often appears in debates about options teams have for addressing issues. The usual form is "<Statement1> but <Statement2> and <Bad-Implication>". In this form, using but tends to be interpreted as contradicting <Statement1>, which is rarely the intent. The (unwelcome) result is oppositional debate instead of joint problem solving. That's why it's often much safer to use and in place of but.

There are many more examples of the big power from little words. Here are three more.

Example 1: Yet

Consider yet. Literally, it can mean "up to now," as in, "I haven't yet heard any rumors about that." And it can also mean "in addition to" or "besides," as in, "Your behavior gives me yet another reason to wonder about your upbringing." That first meaning, up-to-now, is one that gives yet power to change how we think about ourselves and our potential.

Use this device: when you state something about yourself that's self-critical, add yet at the end. For example, compare "I'm not a people-oriented manager," to, "I'm not a people-oriented manager yet." The former is a statement that describes stasis. There is no thought of the potential for change, or for acquiring new abilities. The latter, on the other hand, emphasizes the potential for change and learning.

Big power from a little word.

Example 2: No way

When The effects of little words can be
wonderful or catastrophic,
and sometimes, both at once
a group is considering the value of one option (call it Option A) compared to other options, they likely exchange predictions of the respective results of the options. In this context, the phrase no way might make an appearance. Because so much of what we do is so complicated, predicting outcomes is notoriously difficult. To assert that there is "no way" a given outcome can result from Option A is to claim an ability to predict results that probably cannot be justified. What we really mean by "no way" is "improbable" or "unlikely."

Asserting that there is "no way" Option A can work is at best overstating the certainty of the claim. And it's an overstatement that distorts the debate, because it transforms into fact a mere claim that's often based on speculation, intuition, or anecdotes. We do better when we distinguish facts from speculations. Reserve "no way" for statements of fact, and provide evidence to justify your claim.

Example 3: Best

Just as with "no way," in the context of comparing options, the word best might arise. As an adjective, best is the superlative form of good. It literally means "excelling all others." We expose ourselves to risk when we use best to describe one option (call it Option A) of the several options under consideration. The risk is that it can distort the debate because it can prevent participants from recognizing the possible existence of as-yet-unmentioned options.

Suppose Option A truly is the best of the options under consideration. In that case, a term more accurate than best might be best of these. That phrase is more literally accurate because it doesn't imply that Option A is superior to options not under consideration. It leaves open the possibility that an option not yet considered might be superior to Option A. And that opening might lead the participants to search for alternatives.

But the effects of best are even more insidious. In many option-comparison discussions, what we mean by best — what we actually can justify — is "none better than." That is, Option A might be good, and it might be about as good as some other options. That's a much weaker claim than a claim that Option A is best. By using the term best we distort the conversation by implying that a detailed comparison of Option A to the other options would show Option A to be superior to all. And, very probably, that's a comparison we haven't done, don't have time to do, and don't have the resources to do.

Instead of best, try none better than once in a while. See how often that opens up the discussion.

Last words

The little words in the list below are like levers. They give us access to the mental shortcuts people use when they interpret statements that use these words. Those mental shortcuts help us interpret what we see and hear quickly. That speed comes at the price of accuracy. The leverage we gain by using these words gives us the ability to guide others to interpret what we're saying more quickly and less accurately.

Below is a list of examples of little words and phrases that can give their users big power.

  • Absolutely not, no way, in your dreams
  • Always, never
  • Better, better not, had best, you'd best
  • But
  • Chill, calm down, cool your jets
  • Frankly, honestly, to be honest/frank/candid
  • Get
  • If I were you
  • Ignorant
  • Look, listen
  • No, can't, won't
  • Only, just
  • Pal
  • Quotation marks
  • Should
  • Simply
  • Upset
  • You

And…any blue words. Go to top Top  Next issue: Kerfuffles That Seem Like Something More  Next Issue

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See also Effective Communication at Work and Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.

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