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Do Words Matter?

Do Words Matter?

Photo Credit: ESB Professional/

Photo Credit: ESB Professional/

Three Phrases That Have Changed How I Work

“I like, I like, I wonder.”

“Yes, and...”

“How might we?”

The above three phrases continue to have a profound effect on how I work, how I communicate at work, and how I process everyday life.

Each of these phrases is rooted in design thinking methodology; a human-centered approach to problem solving with a bias toward deep user empathy and open-ended possibility. The Stanford eloquently articulates five guiding principles of the design thinking process:

  1. To create meaningful innovations, you need to know your users and care about their lives.

  2. Framing the right problem is the only way to create the right solution.

  3. It’s not about coming up with the ‘right’ idea, it’s about generating the broadest range of possibilities.

  4. Build to think and test to learn.

  5. Testing is an opportunity to learn about your solution and your user.

Adopting a mindset congruent with the above can make you pretty conscious of ‘what you do’ and ‘how you go about doing it’. Whether at work or at home, or in serving clients or coworkers, this categorical, yet strangely intuitive, shift in thinking doesn’t ever leave you. It augments what’s already there.

Understanding that behaviour is often a reflection of our mindset, the words we choose can have a material impact on everything from making decisions to motivating others. In both an organizational and personal context, words are as inextricably linked to making conversation as language is to impacting culture.

So, how useful are these phrases?

Like with many words, their meaning and relevance are dictated largely by the context in which they’re used. I find myself repeatedly employing these phrases in situations that are non-combative, exploratory and intellectually challenging in nature.

“I like, I like, I wonder.”

I have found this phrase to be an effective vehicle to both deliver and process feedback when collaborating with others, regardless of how interpersonally challenging the situation. 

As an example of how this phrase is used, let's say an idea is presented to improve a local region’s literacy rates. A typical exchange using “I like, I like, I wonder” might go something like this:

I like the fact that your idea considers the different learning styles of children. I like how your idea leverages the strengths of existing school infrastructure. I wonder how we might adapt your idea to better include the needs of adult learners?

Constructive, balanced and actionable; an awesome type of feedback.

A cherished mentor used to remind me that “feedback is a gift”. Receiving that gift, however, can sometimes sting! While attitude is important in how we process incoming feedback, so is the tone & framing with which it is delivered. Keeping both factors in mind can help ensure an outcome that is both empathetic and progressive.

“Yes, and...”

Many improv comedy troupes will tout the benefits of using this phrase to keep a skit or a bit alive for as long as possible. When used effectively, a random idea can evolve into a complex narrative as it's passed between open-minded comedians.

The same can be said for an idea. Employing “yes, and…” can do a lot to keep an idea alive. At its core, this phrase encourages one to build and iterate on what's been shared. At worst, you end up letting an idea run its course. At best, that same idea evolves into a human-centered solution worth testing.

As an examplelet's imagine that a romantic partner suggests cooking homemade food on Sundays, rather than going out to eat, so as to spend quality time together. A response that could be built upon using “yes, and…” might be:

Yes! And we could probably cook enough food to prepare some additional meals for the week.

It's worth noting that phrases like “No, but…” aren't a ‘bad’ phrase by comparison. Again, context counts. That being said, you can imagine which of the two phrases might be easier to work with on a more frequent basis.

Much like how a songwriter composes to serve the intention behind a song or a journalist to the integrity of a story, serving the possibility inherent in every idea is an ideal worth practising consciously.  

“How might we?”

Framing a challenge properly can go a long way in ensuring that the solution is relevant and useful. Framing a challenge as a “how might we?” statement imbues a subtle, yet impactful, sense of exploration, openness and curiosity that is as sorely needed as it is overlooked.

As an example, how might you react differently to each of the below statements if presented with one in a boardroom meeting?

We need to dramatically reduce operating costs without impacting NPS scores.
How might we add value to our customers while being cost effective?

Does one statement seem easier to work with? Does one seem more limiting than the other? It's funny what a few words can do.

I've learned that a tangible benefit of the “how might we?” process is the reframing of your original challenge.

It begs you to ask the all-important question “Are you solving the right problem in the first place?”.

Better to find out before jumping to a solution so as to be focused on your user from the start. For many organisations, an internally compliant solution born out of process can often be viewed as a more desirable output than a solution born out of a nascent customer need.

It is, however, a journey. Constraints will always exist and are, in fact, healthy; especially as it relates to breeding creativity. That being said, too tight or too broad a scope can affect how we might solution against a challenge. Like with many things in life, it's in the ‘happy medium’ where the most harmonious of outcomes exist.

The Power of Words 

Words—so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become, in the hands of one who knows how to combine them!
— Nathaniel Hawthorne

Employing these three phrases continue to have a noticeably positive impact on my everyday life. Whether stressed or ‘light on my feet’, by comparison, I’ve learned that exercising empathetic and open-ended language can go a long way in producing progressive and delightful outcomes.

From tackling challenges with your team to communicating thoughts in a meeting, I encourage you to give these phrases a try. I hope you find them as useful as I have!


Originally published on May 29, 2017

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