Tips for Mentors: Choosing Words that Could, Should, Might Make a Difference

By Marie Taylor, Steve Crabb

As a mentor, you need to have a cache of words that you can draw on to help make a difference. Have you ever met someone who said he would do something but didn’t follow through with his actions? This sorry state of affairs is not uncommon in business, especially after meetings when instructions have been given or agreements have been made but people still don’t do their part.

Modal operators give clues as to why this inactivity sets in and how you can coach your clients to listen carefully to others’ communication and change their language in order to influence people to deliver on promises made.

Modal operators can be thought of as “moody operators.” They juice up the motivational desire to take action by changing the submodalities of the mind pictures. Thoughts precede actions, and when people can literally see themselves taking the action in the movie in their mind and see the movie run to the end with a successful outcome, they’ll engage in the activity.

This exercise is called “Juicing up the motivation to take action.” Use this exercise to personally experience how changing one word in a sentence has an influence on how you feel about taking action and how you’re likely to behave.

  1. Play the sentences below, one at a time, inside your head using your own internal voice.

    Say each sentence, stop, and notice the feelings you get.

  2. As you go through the exercise, compare the feelings from one sentence to another.

    On a motivational scale of 0 to 10 where 0 is no motivation to take action and 10 is totally motivated, note the motivation for each sentence.

    Start by making an assumption that, regardless of the reality and circumstances of your life, it is within your power to take Monday off work and say to yourself:

    • “I wish I could take Monday off.” Notice the motivational feeling and rate it 0 to 10.
    • “I’d like to take Monday off.” Notice the motivational feeling and rate it 0 to 10.
    • “I want to take Monday off.” Notice the motivational feeling and rate it 0 to 10.
    • “I need to take Monday off.” Notice the motivational feeling and rate it 0 to 10.
    • “I must take Monday off.” Notice the motivational feeling and rate it 0 to 10.
    • “I can take Monday off.” Notice the motivational feeling and rate it 0 to 10.
    • “I will take Monday off.” Notice the motivational feeling and rate it 0 to 10.
    • “I’m going to take Monday off.”

Notice that simply by changing one word in the sentence, you experience a different degree of motivation. Generally, for most people, as they progress down the list, they feel more motivated.

These language patterns and humans are all unique, so some people won’t comply exactly with the usual patterns. Always work with whatever the unique individual human you’re communicating with presents to you.

Now, do the same exercise again, but this time pay attention to the mind pictures that you make as you say the sentences, becoming aware of which submodalities change.

Generally, the sentences at the top of the list are described as unclear or wishy-washy; people experience low levels of motivation and the activity is not likely to happen. As people progress down the list, the images become clearer and more active, and more motivation is present to take the desired action.

Try one further sentence and notice what happens. If someone said to you, “You should take Monday off,” what happens to the picture? For most people, when someone else tells them what they should do, the mind picture disappears. Tell people what they should do and you’re literally erasing the very thoughts from their mind. No thought = no action.

With this knowledge about how language changes the motivation and desire to take action, consider these sentences and whether the person saying them is likely to deliver or get others to deliver on their promise. Against each sentence is a reworked sentence using language designed to influence the listener and get the desired results.

  • “I would like the report to be concluded by Monday” versus “The report must be concluded and delivered to my office on Monday.”
  • “We want to finish this project by the end of the month” versus “Let’s aim to finish this project and see it done by the end of the month.”
  • “The customers must be told they have to return the signed contracts before we can ship the product” versus “Tell the customer to return the signed contracts and the product will be shipped to them by return.”

To improve your success rate in influencing people to take action, where possible completely remove the modal operators from the communication or use more motivating ones.