Choosing the right words to build resilience

One of the most important skills we try to teach children is how to be resilient in the face of challenges, big and small, throughout their lives. It is a vital life skill, crucial to their success and happiness and is the key focus of parents and educators, determined to raise resilient high functioning independent humans.

Yet resilience is overlooked in the workplace, even though organisations are full of people operating at less than optimum levels of resilience. Some people seem to have the ability to bounce back from negative events, while others dwell on them and can’t seem to move on. Those people who are less resilient can quickly develop ‘helpless’ attitudes. Most likely you have witnessed helplessness in the workplace yourself. People less able to bounce back from setbacks, who have developed helpless attitudes can become cynical, negative and unmotivated. Of course, for managers, this is not a good situation, so it is important to build resilience in staff and help them bounce back quickly from challenges to remain engaged and productive.

Understanding helplessness

Lack of resilience or “helplessness” is learned. In a workplace, if a manger is one to swoop in and save staff when challenges arise, staff are discouraged from problem-solving and learn that helplessness is acceptable. It’s also evident in the words people choose to use to describe positive and negative events. The specific words chosen will either help increase resilience or actively work against it. It is the language, not the trigger or event that will make you resilient and optimistic.

As outlined in his book, Learned Optimism Dr. Martin Seligman points out that helpless or resilient words and language centre around the specific choice of words for the elements of permanence, pervasiveness and personalisation. Let’s explore these more;

Permanence: Less resilient people tend to use permanent words for negative triggers, and temporary words for positive triggers. Helpless language for negative events will be are “I always get it wrong”; “they always reject our findings”, “my boss is never happy” or for positive situations they may use temporary words to indicate they see the positive outcome to be temporary or fleeting. Resilient language on the other hand is the other way around, words are chosen that reflect that the person perceives the negative event to be fleeting and momentary (“when”, “at this point in time”, “in the meeting”, “lately”) but will use language to indicate that the positive event is more permanent “you always do your best work”, “you never get things wrong”.

Pervasiveness: When challenges arise, less resilient people will use words that reflect them to perceive the negative event to be pervading all other aspects of their life (e.g.: “all managers are dictators”, “books are useless”) but are more specific when good things happen (e.g.: “I did well in that presentation”). Resilient people are opposite; they will be more specific regarding negative events (e.g.: “There is only one manager who is a dictator”, “this book is not for me”) and words that imply the good experience is pervading other aspects of their life (e.g.: “I make good decisions”, “I’m a good presenter”)

Personalisation: When a negative event happens, helpless people will use words that reflect they believe it to be linked to themselves (e.g.: “I caused that”, “It was my fault”). In the case of positive events, they will use words to reflect that they perceive other people/ things to be responsible for the positive outcome.

On the other hand, resilient people perceive the negative trigger or event to be linked to an external person, place or thing, not themselves, whereas they perceive positive events to be linked to themselves. They will use words to reflect this.

Setting a Culture where Resilience Thrives

It is vital for managers to understand this concept and develop an organisational language which fosters resilience in staff.

A good place to start is to do a resilience health check of yourself! If you can build resilience in yourself by choosing the right self-talk in response to events, you can more readily extend that attitude and language to those around you.

As you progress with your week, be conscious of positive and negative triggers and how you respond to them. Take note of your reactions and self-talk. Identify words that indicate permanence, pervasiveness and personalisation and see if you can become more optimistic in your attitude to yourself. Once you have mastered that (although this will be an ongoing endeavour), try implementing this language to those in your team with the intent of building resilience. Without actively choosing resilience, we simply can’t thrive and be the best versions of ourselves.

If you would like Rod to help you develop a resilient organisation, please get in touch today.

Share News