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How positive language can change behaviours

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By choosing to adopt more positive language, we can change behaviours with surprising success, says Jane Lelean.

I absolutely don’t want you to think about a green elephant playing tennis. Whatever you do, don’t think about a green elephant playing tennis. Only think about what I do want you to think about.

Why are you laughing and smiling? You thought about the green elephant playing tennis, didn’t you? Even though I specifically asked you not to do it.

What I actually wanted you to think about is a purple rabbit on the trampoline… how successful were you at thinking about that?

Of course, you were unsuccessful, because I didn’t tell you what I did want you to think about.

I would wager that without me being specific about what I did want, you would never in a million years have thought about a purple rabbit on a trampoline.

The word ‘don’t’ is undermining your ability to be understood and make requests that can be fulfilled.

The human mind cannot process a ‘don’t’. For you to visualise a negative, your mind must first internally create an image of the unwanted behaviour and then erase it.


Mental rehearsal and visualisation, is an incredibly powerful skill. It is used by high performing people: athletes, actors, politicians, dentists, and so on.

Visualisation is so powerful that in some studies it is more effective at improving the scoring rate of basketball players than practice.

When you ask someone not to do something, they must mentally rehearse, embedding the unwanted behaviour. This fails to get closer to the desired behaviour.

Have you ever said to a child: ‘Don’t put the glass at the edge of the table, you will knock it off’? What happened? In most cases, what occurs is exactly what you didn’t want to happen. This is because the child must act out the behaviour you don’t want to happen to be able to process what not to do.

What is the solution?


I invite you to make requests stating clearly, in the positive, what you do want the other person to do (see the box above for examples).

Pay attention and ask other people to make you aware of when you use words like ‘don’t’ and ‘not’.

Slow down, think about what specific behaviours and outcomes you do desire and are requesting.

Make your request in the positive, clearly stating what you do want. I do want you to think about a purple rabbit on a trampoline.

When you have eliminated ‘don’t’ and replaced it with ‘do’, I would love to hear the results you achieved!

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This article first appeared in Dentistry magazine. You can read the latest issue here. 

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