How negative language hinders creative work

2 Minutes Read

Working in research means that most of the time, you are navigating through the unknown while learning about new things through the lens of the respondent.

Research consulting work is also creative work – you rarely do the same repeatedly; most of the time you are faced with new scenarios that have to be approached with creativity and a different way of looking at challenges.

Generally though, we do go into projects with some assumptions around our expected outcomes – based on the client’s brief, hypotheses and our previous experiences.

However, sometimes research can deliver unexpected outcomes – an insight that is not anticipated and subsequently not well received. At the extreme, this can lead to some arguing this means you are wrong, but I challenge this notion. There is an obvious difference between something that is wrong and something that is not as expected.

A good example of this is a project my colleague worked on developing a business customer segmentation. The research highlighted a surprising number of small business owners using consumer plans for their business needs – something the client had not anticipated given the way their services were regulated and delivered. This unexpected finding significantly disrupted their strategy and rework was required to ensure they met their target of winning more share of the SME market.

In my experience, how you discuss and deal with unexpected outcomes makes a significant difference in getting to the right result.

To me, something is clearly wrong when conceptually it doesn’t add up; for example, 2+2=10! In those cases, the conversation ends, and you’re back to the drawing board.

Conversely, something that doesn’t match with the expected output doesn’t mean that it can be proven wrong – it is just presenting a different perspective.

The trick to managing these situations is in being mindful of the language we use.

Qualifying something to be ‘wrong’ because it doesn’t meet our expected outcome hinders the creative process because, with those words, we reach a dead end.

However, if we approach our problem-solving conversations with positive language it supports the creative process and opens up myriad of new options and opportunities.

This means using phrases such as:

  • This is a different viewpoint, I don’t necessarily agree with this but tell me why you think this is correct?
  • I hadn’t thought of this approach, this is not necessarily the answer I was thinking of, but why are you reaching this conclusion?
  • This is quite different from what I was expecting, why do we think this has come about?

Approaching conversations, in particular, those related to feedback on work, with more positive language leads us to more positive outcomes.

Next time you’re looking at work and giving feedback I challenge you to avoid saying something is wrong and encourage you to say this is not quite there yet to see the difference this can produce.

I’m confident this approach encourages creativity, and with creative work, we can untap new and better solutions.

What has been your experience of language and creativity?

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Juliana Valencia

Juliana is a Research Manager at The Evolved Group. She is passionate about both giving customers voice so they can build intimate relationships with their brands while getting amazing experiences as well as building strong partnerships with her clients to uncover actionable insights.