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The Hidden Power of Language

7 Sep 2012

The Hidden Power of Language

The Power of Language – and Words

I learned about the power of language first hand when I went to live in France. I used to get two particular words mixed up. The result would be that the people around me would fall about laughing, which in turn told me I’d made another mistake.

image: The Hidden Power of Language

The two words were ‘gare’ and ‘guerre’. Although they’re spelt differently there’s not a huge difference in their pronunciation – not to someone with an English ear, at any rate! Language itself has always fascinated me. From the simplest of instructions, ‘STOP!’ to the nuances of information that we read ‘between the lines.’ The language we use (consciously and unconsciously) imparts information beyond the simple words themselves.

Making Sense

Language can be written, spoken or gestural.

You use your senses to ‘make sense’ of language.

You form pictures, sounds, feelings and talk to yourself. Sometimes you might even add tastes and smells. In NLP terminology this way of representing external information is called Internal Representations, because they cause you to form a representation or an interpretation in your mind of what you’ve experienced.

The Power of language

Words are the agreed labels we use to convey information. But even when we understand all the words, there are still vast opportunities to entirely miss the meaning. It’s the stuff of humour:

After not hearing from her elderly neighbour for a few days, Mrs Green got a bit nervous. “John”, she called to her son “do me a favour and go next door and find out how old Mrs. Robinson is.” So ten year old John went next door and knocked on Mrs. Robinson’s door. “So how is she?” asked Mrs. Green when John came back. “I’ve never seen her so mad in my life, said John, “she said it’s none of your business how old she is.”


Even without trying to be funny the potential power of language for misunderstanding is often present. We may not think too much about the language we use and the internal representations it creates in the minds of others. Some companies should definitely give language more consideration. For example, compare how you represent, “Our operators are waiting to take your call.” with “All our operators are busy, please call again.”


In order to understand a sentence, certain things have to be assumed or inferred that are not directly stated in the sentence. For example, “You’ll have to restore my confidence in you.” (Implies I used to have confidence in you but now I don’t, and you need to do something for me to have confidence in you again.)

“If the dog keeps barking, I’ll have to call him back inside.” (The dog is male, he’s outside currently, he’s been barking for some time, he’s barking still, he was inside previously, I am inside, he’ll respond to a call, he’ll come if I call. Phew!)

Try or not try

If you asked someone to do something, which answer would you have most confidence in, “OK, I’ll try and do that.” or “Yes, I’ll do that” ? The word ‘try’ has an element of failure associated with it, it creates doubt in the mind.

Worse still, it lacks commitment. It’s almost a way of avoiding, in advance, the guilt associated with not succeeding. And it’s such a tiny word. As Yoda famously said,

“No! Try not. Do, or do not, there is no try.”

Unpacking language

Working with the assumptions (technical term; presuppositions) of language is part of the ‘linguistic’ part of Neuro Linguistic Programming. When you begin ‘unpacking’ the language a person uses, all manner of problems can be identified, explored and resolved.

You can use the power of language to guide your mind in the direction you’d prefer by the type of questions you ask. If you ask, “Why can’t I find a job I’ll love?” your mind will respond to the assumption that you can’t find a job you love by throwing up negative reasons – probably resulting in a crisis of confidence!

However, if you ask “How can I find a job I’ll love?” Or better still, “How can I find a job I’ll really love that will pay me well?” the assumption is that it is possible, it’s just a matter of discovering how. The question is much more expansive and will trigger your creativity and send you on a search for multiple positive answers.

Gare vs Guerre

One of my occasional jobs when I lived in France was to go and collect small parcels for my boss from the train station at the end of our road. The French word for train station is gare. Guerre, unfortunately, means ‘war’. So in my confusion I would say that I was, ‘off to war to pick up a parcel!’

Even that slight change in pronunciation produced completely different internal representations from those who heard, resulting in uproarious laughter.

My interest in words and language leads me to notice how loaded with assumptions some sentences can be. This is my current favourite,

“Unattended Children will be given an Espresso and a Free Puppy.”

What do you want to do now?