Small Words, Big Impact

We listen to lots of speakers, trainers, coaches writers and managers. Many of them use big words, business jargon and technical jargon to impress or bamboozle their audience.

This blog post looks at the small, everyday words that have the biggest impact. I’m thinking of the modern workplace as I write this, but really, they work anywhere.

Words That Manage

First of all, let’s look at words that manage.


  • Recent research suggests that “hello” is declining in the office, particularly when people arrive in the mornings (something I noticed when visiting workplaces as a contractor). The author of an article I read this week suggested that this does two things: dehumanises everyone and makes it much more difficult to approach that person to ask if the report is ready for the meeting (because your first words of the day didn’t even include a simple greeting).
  • Saying hello simply acknowledges another human (something particularly important if you’re in a leadership position), provides an introduction to some friendly interaction, for example “did you get the kids’ bikes ready for your trip?”. It lets people know you see them, you respect them and you’re approachable. It sounds basic, but how many people do you know take time to say a proper hello?


  • When a manager begins with “let’s”, you know you’re listening to someone who is attempting to lead a team, not merely assign them tasks. You can tell the workplaces where people feel part of a supported team. They’re busy with lots of real communication about work, not braincell-zapping, reality TV.
  • Workplaces where there is no “let’s” are instead full of command statements “Get me that”, “Work on this now”). These places are quiet the cortisol is palpable.

“It’s OK”

  • I made a mistake on a client’s report recently. Though the mistake was not fixable, there was no big drama. This client is professional, so I was not expecting drama. But, when I confessed (mortified), they simply said “it’s OK, we’re all human”. (There wasn’t even a parent-style “well, don’t do it again”. They trusted me enough to know not to do it again.
  • Adults who make everyday mistakes in the workplace do not need correction, as long as they ‘ve understood, apologised and done what they could to correct it.


  • When you acknowledge small and large actions (even when no third party is around to witness it) it delivers respect to the recipient.
  • It encourages similar behaviour. Children are not the only creatures that can be conditioned to different (better) behaviour by positive reinforcement!
  • Further, it models good manners to other members of the team. Who knows, someone may even reciprocate one day

“Well done”

  • Have you been watching the UK TV series from Bear Grills, the Island? I’ve noticed that island inhabitants particularly females of an aggressive nature tend to respond well to an older person telling them “well done”. Perhaps all they need is some recognition, not more aggro. It’s not rocket science, is it?
  • When was the last time your manager singled you in front of the team for a task or project well delivered? Is undeserved censure instead the default? If so, it’s probably time to leave. You can’t change the culture of an organisation, but you can choose to get out of it.

Words That Assert

Managers and team members alike can benefit from words that assert.


  • Notice my “no” finishes with a full-stop. Our Assertiveness Programme includes a section on why no should rarely be followed with an explanation or excuse. Someone will always try to solve it for you.
  • It’s a shocker. In many cultures, we’re socially conditioned to please, to make everyone like us. “No” is not about being liked. It’s about drawing a line in the sand.


  • When you need to know when something is going to happen, it’s a good idea to ask the question as simply as possible, for example “When will the project move to Stage 2?”. Clear questions, with as few words as possible, elicit the best answers.
  • It lets the person know that your time is important, but that you also recognise that things take time. We were approached in the last few months by someone who wanted to know how when a website content project would be finsihed (with zero input). Make sure your “when” is said in a context where you’re supplied that person as much information as they need to know how long something will take.

Words That Inspire

And, finally, do your words inspire? I’m not talking on the level of a leader such as Gary Vaynerchuk. Just everyday stuff.

“I got it wrong, sorry”

  • Leaders and others in positions of authority can inspire by admitting their mistakes. It lessens the gap between them and their management team.
  • It reveals confidence and poise. It takes someone relaxed enough with themselves that they can confess they messed up. (Only the chronically insecure insist they don’t make mistakes.)
  • Crucially though, this also opens the door for others to admit to their infractions, leaving room for your team to grow in confidence and professional competence.

“I don’t know, but I’ll find out”

  • Our experience of listening to trainers and coaches in particular, is that the professional ones are OK with revealing their lack of knowledge, even in their own topic. Only narcissists insist on maintaining a fa√ßade of omnipotence.
  • The very best stand out because they get back to you. We spoke to several suppliers recently, did not promise to hire them for anything in particular, and yet one they rang back later with additional information (something they promised, but experience has taught me not to expect). Guess who we’ll hire?

“Are you OK?”

  • We’ve all seen someone upset in the workplace, whether because of trying personal circumstances or because of something that happened at work. The kindest way to deal with it is to get that person somewhere private and ask “are you OK?”. Why? Because it ‘s the human thing to do.
  • Yet often we see it’s opposite: people are ignored, dismissed as emotional (as if that was a bad thing) or punished. That’s the inhuman thing to do. And from a managerial point of view, does not solve anything. Lead from the front. Stand out by ditching the outdated alpha management style of aggressive, rapid decision-making and fierce communication style. Your compassion and empathy show you’re human too. And, that makes for a much more compelling leader.

What small words do you use that have mighty impact? Add them into the comments below, letting us know the context and why you think they work so well.

And, if you need with enabling your team to use words that have a big impact, contact us on 0845 527 0474 or

A Dangerous Happiness

For believe me: the secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is to live dangerously! Build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius! Send your ships into uncharted seas!

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Joyous Knowledge, 238

According to Martin Seligman, Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, there are three levels of happiness in life.

  1. The Pleasant Life in which we seek happiness by maximising the quantity and quality of pleasurable sensations
  2. The Good Life in which we attain happiness by achieving commitment and competence in work, play and love
  3. The Meaningful Life in which happiness flows from a deep sense of fulfillment by living for a purpose greater than oneself

I want to suggest a forth level, or better, a forth perspective on happiness.

  1. The Dangerous Life in which we strive for happiness by opening ourselves up to the excitement and opportunities of risk

Positive Psychology lists twenty-four character strengths the discovery and development of which leads to personal happiness. Three of them are: curiosity/interest in the world, leadership, and hope/optimism.

Pandora’s Box

Curiosity is dangerous. Nietzsche ‘s quote mentions exploration of the unknown. The drive to experience new places, new people, and new ideas is usually considered positive and healthy. Such an inquisitive spirit is the basic motivation behind all learning and information gathering.

Of course, exploration can be physically dangerous. But recent research has shown that the emotion of curiosity itself can lead humans to expose themselves to aversive stimulifor no apparent benefits. The human need to resolve uncertainty, regardless of the consequences, sometimes leads to trouble, as Pandora found out.

Believing in yourself is dangerous. Another study showed that believing in ourselves increases risk taking subjects who are led to believe they are very competent at decision making see more opportunities in a risky choice and take more risks. Part of this belief was due to positive feedback, and part due to strong self-belief, or, as psychologists call it, self-efficacy .

Risky Business

Optimism is dangerous. Optimists show considerably less risk-aversion than pessimists, both in relation to risk perception and actual risk taking. An uncertain environment can contain a situation of either pure chance or imprecise probability. In both counts, optimists are willing to plunge in where pessimists fear to tread.

So, even in Positive Psychology, here is no positive without the possibility of a negative. There is no happiness without the danger of pain. There is no reward without risk. If you want to grasp at more happiness, then you must relish embracing the dangerous too.


Christopher K. Hsee and Bowen Ruan. “The Pandora Effect: The Power and Peril of Curiosity.” Psychological Science 27, no. 5 (2016): pp. 659 666.

Krueger, Norris, and Peter R. Dickson. “How believing in ourselves increases risk taking: perceived self-efficacy and opportunity recognition.” Decision Sciences 25, no. 3 (1994): 385-400.

Tadeusz Tyszka (Kozminski University) and Jaideep Roy (Murdoch University). “Optimism and Attitude Towards Risk.” Kozminski Business School Working Paper Series No. 06 (2008).

Mental Health for Entrepreneurs

On 11 August at 10:30 am, I ‘ll deliver a free mini-workshop: Mental Health for Entrepreneurs.

This topic hasn ‘t received much attention, despite the fact that its two constituent parts mental health and entrepreneurship certainly have.

The Blurb

A quarter of small business owners fall mentally ill due to burnout. Half of all entrepreneurs deal with at least one mental illness.

This workshop will explain why and examine practical strategies to ease and energise the business brain.

The first of these stats was covered in a Guardian article towards the end of last year, with the headline that business owners struggle to ease work-life imbalance. This is hardly breaking news! But the article did point to some serious research conducted in the same year by Simply Business which showed, among other things, that a quarter of the business owners surveyed have fallen ill due to stress and overwork.

Part of the problem rests with certain aspects of entrepreneurial culture, especially the ‘sleep faster’ startup culture, the pressure to succeed, and the notion that business failure is equivalent to personal failure. This often leads to self-worth issues, anxiety, and devastating depression. So there is plenty of evidence to suggest a connection between entrepreneurship and mental health conditions, and even that entrepreneurship itself can become addictive!

As well as taking a look at some of these statistics and symptoms, my workshop will explore what lies behind them, which is, an entrepreneurial mindset that brings with it great dangers as well as advantages. The main thrust of my workshop will be to suggest ways to transform the dark work-ethic of entrepreneurship into a play-ethic that protects mental health and promotes business success at the same time.

Why Am I Talking About Mental Health for Entrepreneurs?

My qualifications for speaking on this topic are professional and personal. I ‘ve lead courses in Positive Psychology at local universities and taught young people in our schools as a trainer for Aware. I ‘ve started and run my own business for almost a decade. I’ve had a long interest in the relationship between mental health and creativity. And I ‘ve experienced debilitating mental ill health first hand.

Venue and Booking

The location will be The Foundry, a coworking space established by East Belfast Enterprise, built with start-ups, entrepreneurs and small businesses in mind.

The session will last for 1.5 hours, including introductions and Q&A.

To book your place, contact Patrick at East Belfast Enterprise on 028 9094 2010.

This workshop will enable entrepreneurs and business owners to start a conversation about their mental health. I look forward to meeting you there.

Further Reading

I ‘m glad that research into this field is rising, with PhD opportunities now available for study into Understanding and Enhancing the Health and Wellbeing of Entrepreneurs .

Also, a number of websites and projects have recently arisen that are dedicated to mental health for entrepreneurs. Here a selection of them.

  • Business in Mind is a workplace mental health promotion program designed for small to medium enterprise owner/managers.
  • Entrepreneur Depression is a website with stories, self-care exercises and resources designed to help entrepreneur with depression.
  • The purpose of The Mindset Project is to get more entrepreneurial in supporting founder wellness.


Since working with Aware Defeat Depression on the Mood Matters programme, I’ve been looking for another opportunity to get involved with a mental health organisation. Recently an opportunity arose for a Sessional Trainer with CAUSE. I’m delighted to announce that I’ll be working with CAUSE on two of their programmes.

Resilience for Carers

This one day course examines our ability to bounce back from setbacks and the impact that resilience and emotional intelligence can have on your role as a carer. Using real life examples, it helps us realise the skills we are currently using and motivates us to build on those to support our caring role.

Carers Course PREP

“The CAUSE Carers course consists of six short lively modular workshops with interactive discussions, guest speakers and information on the fundamentals you need as a carer of someone with a serious mental illness.”

Read more about training for carers at CAUSE.

Resilience Authors

The one of particular interest to me is the Resilience topic, since Sensei already delivers the topic to organisations across Ireland. For me, resilience is best defined using some of the most inspiring thinkers I’ve read:

  • Langer, On Becoming An Artist in which she talks about enjoying the now, without stressing about the outcome
  • Langer, Counterclockwise in which she talks about our society’s distasteful tendency to discard the old and remove all choice from their lives, and shows a better way that alleviates (and sometimes heals) the natural ageing process and fosters happiness at all stages in life
  • Goleman, Emotional Intelligence in which he posits EI as the source of success, contentment and progress in life, relationships, communication and work
  • Seligman, Learned Optimism in which he argues for a conscious route to a more productive, creative life through the discipline of optimistic approach to life

If you’d like to arrange a Resilience workshop for your workplace, contact us.

Depression: Snog, Marry or Avoid?

So before this week I thought there were two end-points when tacking depression. You could cure and defeat it ( ‘avoid ‘). Or admit that it would be with you always but try to set boundaries to it and manage it on a daily basis ( ‘marry ‘).

Now I think there might be a third option. You can embrace it and use it to your advantage ( ‘snog ‘).

I know that there have been books out there for a while now that have talked about ‘the depression advantage ‘ but I remained mildly cynical, mostly because of the pain I experience in my own depression, partly due to the unscientific nature of the arguments used to justify such an outlook.

Is depression a mental state that flows from personality?

A few insights have conspired to open my mind a little. The first is a growing sense that depression is a mental state that flows from my personality rather than environment or lifestyle. If this is so, not only would it be wrong to try and cure it, it would lack strategic value. My philosophy is that you use what you have to your advantage rather than waste time regretting it.

Are depressives wiser?

Also, I read an article about Winston Churchill which argued that his depressive moods where a reason why he was able to see the dangers of Hitler ‘s Germany more clearly than any other politician of his time. I have since learned that there is a perspective on depression called ‘depressive realism ‘ that argues this very point. It seems that depressives may be in the words of one academic article ‘sadder but wiser ‘.

BTW please don ‘t watch the TV show that inspired the title of this blog. It will really depress you! 😉

Image credit: dm-set.

What is the Opposite of Depression? (Part 2)

In What is the Opposite of Depression? (Part 1) I suggested that the true opposite of depression is play.

Play, like depression, is essentially a mood or mental state rather than a set of behaviours. Scholars have called it a lusory attitude. That simply means the psychological attitude a players has when they entre into a game. “To adopt a lusory attitude is to accept the arbitrary rules of a game in order to facilitate the resulting experience of play.”

The development of a lusory attitude strongly suggests that depression can be cured. Many treatments today aim merely at management of depression rather than its cure. Depression is kept under control by drugs or wrestled unto temproary submission by therapy. Neither of them end it forever.

Play provides a way to achieve this positive mental state, namely, in the activity of play itself. Play as an activity takes many forms, such as games, humour and joyfulness. Each of these has a variety of forms. Depressed people can with help experiment to find those play forms that suit them best and that prove most effective against depression.

Although achieving a play mindset is the goal, engaging in different types and levels of play activity is the means of cure. This is healthier, cheaper and more fun than medication or talking cures.

Developing a lusory attitude in depressive people provides a positive, alternative mindset to their current state. Its aim is not to take away the depression and leave them with blank state to which the illness can easily return. Play provides a positive alternative with which to replace depression.

How this play mindset might be achieved is still open to discussion. There are many different types of play to suit different personality types and situations. The goal is not escape from the harsh realities of life but the construction of an attitude that allows for a healthy engagement with them. Play gives people the opportunity design their experience and dispense their energy in positive ways. Depressive people could be encouraged to experience play, to apply play and to live a playful life.

What is the Opposite of Depression? (Part 1)

One way to gain insight into the nature of something is to examine its opposite. I was struck recently by reading the words of different people who claimed that the opposite of fear, for example, is not courage, but love. Instead of forever debating an exact definition of depression, one way forward might be to imagine its opposite and then work towards achieving that opposite state in depressed people.

So what is the opposite of depression? I present you with three candidates.

Depression is a form of mental ill health. The opposite of ill health is, well, health. This is true but it doesn ‘t take us very far. There are many varieties of mental illness of which depression is one. Mental health is a general term; depression is a specific. Also, someone can lack depression or other forms of mental illness and yet we could not classify them as mentally healthy. Health is a positive appraisal. It shouldn ‘t merely mean that an illness is lacking.

Depression is a state of low mood, whatever else is may be. Therefore, the opposite of depression is a state of high mood. The clinical name for this elevates state is mania, which is mostly associated with bipolar disorder. There is a type of mania called hypomania that is a functioning disorder in which people feel highly energised, confident and assertive. However, as it is a disorder, it may lead to risk-taking behaviours and progress into full-blown bipolar. It is not a healthy alternative to depression.

I wish to suggest a third alternative that is wholly positive and within our power. It struck me after rethinking a well-known quotation from Brian Sutton-Smith. The opposite of play is not work, its depression. The application of this quote is usually directed towards the world of work: play and work are not dichotomies, and there should be play element in the workplace. But could the quote ‘s focus not equally be the sphere of depression?

I suggest that the true opposite of depression is play. I’ll unpack this radical idea a bit more in my next blog.

Mental Power, Mental Health

Two years ago I wrote a blog called He’s Nuts! No, He’s A Genius! about how creative minds mimic certain mental illnesses like schizophrenia. I think you might be interested to know that more research has been forthcoming on this tantalising topic. Specifically, a new large scale study has revealed a definite link between creativity and mental illness. Medical News Today puts it like this.

“Individuals who work in creative fields are diagnosed and treated with a mental illness more frequently than the general public, showing an important link between writing and schizophrenia… Analysis provided evidence for the researchers’ prior report, that bipolar disorder is more common in all individuals with artistic or scientific jobs, including researchers, dancers, photographers, and authors. The majority of the other psychiatric diseases, such as depression, anxiety syndrome, schizophrenia, and substance abuse, were more prevalent among authors in particular. They also had a 50% higher chance of committing suicide compared to the general public.”

This story originated in the Journal of Psychiatric Research. The research paper was entitled, ‘Mental illness, suicide and creativity: 40-Year prospective total population study’. An abstract can be found and read here.

All this reminds me of three other concepts in which heightened mental power and mental health may meet.

Hypomania -Literally meaning ‘below mania’ this is the mildly elated state between lifeless apathy and crippling anxiety. People in this state are perceived as being energetic, euphoric, overflowing with new ideas, and sometimes highly confident. They might also seem immune to fear and doubt and have little social inhibition, talking to strangers easily, offer solutions to problems, and find pleasure in small activities.

Eustress – Literally Meaning ‘good stress’ this is a positive type of pressure in which we are finely balanced between distress of low arousal (‘boreout’) and the distress of too many demands (‘burnout’). Our ability to find this balance depends on whether we look at stressors as threats or challenges. When facing a challenge in the future, it can easily turn into anticipatory anxiety.

Hyperfocus – This not only means intense concentration on a narrow field of focus (somewhat similar to optimal experience or ‘flow’). It may also be related to a clinical condition in which a person finds it difficult to switch between tasks and activities.

So then, is he nuts or is he a genius? Both it seems, depending on the balance, the mood, the context. And maybe at the same time too.

Pessimists, Introverts and Business

Business is for the optimistic, extroverted and hard-nosed. So the story goes. Problem is, the story is wrong. At least, that is, according to a few business gurus and authors out there. Speaking as an introvert, a pessimist and a businessperson, that makes me do something akin to smiling. But not quite.

According to Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times, pessimism is good for business. The thinking behind this statement seems to be that pessimists are better prepared to deal with the world as it is rather than how we would like it to be. I find her suggestion interesting that an organisation should have a mixture of the two types if it is to function with maximum effectiveness.

This notion is not unique to her. Apparently uber guru Tom Peters recently tweeted his appreciation for a book by Julien K Norem called The Positive Power of Negative Thinking: Using Defensive Pessimism to Harness Anxiety and Perform at Your Peak. This book is a recent edition to a selection of authors who either warn against the dangers of the positive psychology movement (Barbara Ehrenreich) or positively (!) extol the virtues of pessimism (Roger Scruton).

I find myself conflicted. On the one hand, I like the idea of using what you are, playing to your own strengths. So, if you’re an introvert, discover or invent ways to turn this to your advantage. Likewise if you are a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) in the workplace. On the other hand, I believe that key business skills such as motivation and resilience are largely due to your ability to initiate ‘growth mindsets’ or positive ‘explanatory styles’ in order to interpret goals and setbacks to yourself.

I suspect that an answer lies in the notion that optimism and pessimism, introversion and extroversion, sensitivity and thick-facedness, are different strategies or tools the skillful businessperson employs as the context requires. None binds; none defines.

Do you agree?