Bus stop

Using language to influence behaviour

Shelle Rose Charvet has recently updated her bestselling book about the language of influence, Words that Change Minds. It is based on research across more than 30 countries since the mid-1990s, and was recently picked by Forbes as one of their best management books for entrepreneurs and executives.

The book helps you understand where people focus their attention by listening to the patterns of language they use. You can then adapt your own language accordingly, to collaborate and/or lead, and get the results that work for everyone.

To get people to go somewhere with you, you have to meet them where they are… Go to their bus-stop, and from their bus-stop, invite them to let the bus take them where you want them to be.

This article explores some of the concepts that might be useful when you are:

  • Trying to motivate and influence people
  • Considering who to have on your team, and the optimal mix of approach/style
  • Developing your team members
  • Leading your team, and embracing the strengths, diversity and needs of each individual to achieve great outcomes
  • Deciding how best to allocate work between people
  • Determining the best way to manage change


Compared with 100 years ago, we are bombarded with information every day. We therefore use filters to decide what information we let in, and what we leave out.

Philosopher and linguist, Noam Chomsky, talks about three processes we use to create our individual theories:

  • Deletion: As a way of coping with this volume, we ignore information from our environment and avoid what we don’t want to know
  • Distortion: We edit the information we receive and turn it into something else that we find more acceptable.  Through this re-interpretation we may get creative!
  • Generalisation: We take a few pieces of information and use them to create general principles, rules and beliefs about what is true or untrue, possible or impossible

Each of these tendencies affect what new information we allow to come in from the outside.

Shelle’s book proposes that, when you listen carefully to the words people use, you can learn a lot about their individual way of looking at the world. Then, by matching their language patterns (meeting them at their bus-stop), you can better influence, support and care for them. This applies at work, in your private life, and – maybe this is seen as manipulative – if you’re trying to sell them something.

Language patterns

Here are some of the most relevant language patterns from the book. Note that there are no rights and wrongs to any of them. Do you recognise yourself and colleagues in these descriptions?

Criteria for action

When taking action, people will either be inclined to move towards a goal or away from a problem.

Towards people

  • Focus on the end-goal to be accomplished
  • Manage priorities
  • Likely to be less interested in identifying problems
  • Could be perceived as naive because they don’t take potential obstacles into account

Away from people

  • Notice what should be avoided
  • Good at trouble-shooting and motivated to solve problems
  • May have trouble maintaining a focus on goals as they may dive into fixing problems
  • Could be perceived as cynical or jaded

Noticing if a person is ‘towards’ or ‘away’ will help you put the right person in the right job or role in a project.

Words that would motivate someone who is a towards person include: Attain, obtain, include, achieve, enable you to, benefits, advantages, here’s what you would accomplish…

Words that would motivate someone who is an away from person include: Won’t have to, solve, prevent, fix, not have to deal with, get rid of, let’s find out what’s wrong, there’ll be no problems…

Getting motivated

Some people are motivated by what other people say, while others find their motivation from their own inner ‘standards’ and beliefs.

To find out which is which, a good question to ask is: “How do you know you’ve done a good job?”

If they say something like: “I just know”, it’s a sign they are internally motivated. If they use words such as: “When my boss tells me”, or “Because I get feedback from other people”, it’s a sign they are externally motivated.


These people gather information from the outside and then make their own decisions. As such, they can be self-motivated but also hard to supervise.


These people like to get opinions, direction and motivation from others. They may have trouble starting and continuing activities without encouragement and feedback.

Working styles

Some people are on a continual quest to find better ways to do things, while others prefer to stick with established procedures.

To find out which is which, ask how they got their current job. The actual words they use aren’t important. You’re listening for which pattern is revealed in their answer.

If they tell a story about the choices they made, they are probably ‘options’. If they tell a step-by-step story, such as: “Then I did this, then this happened and then that,” it’s a sign they are ‘procedures’ (in the context of getting a job).


An options person enjoys possibilities, setup and development, creating procedures and systems. They’re not so good at maintenance because they enjoy bending and breaking rules rather than following them.


A procedures person believes there’s one right way to do things, so they like to follow a step-by-step process. They are interested in how to do things, but not necessarily in why things are the way they are.

Dealing with change

According to the book, there are four patterns that cover how people feel about change. This helps you think about who you need on your team for the nature of the work, now, and as your function changes.


5% of people don’t like change at all.

Sameness with exception

65% of people fit into this category. They are happiest when the overall context remains the same and progress is achieved as things evolve over time, but not too quickly.


20% of people love revolutionary change. They think change should be constant and major and if they don’t get it, they’ll leave.

Sameness with exception and difference

10% are a combination of those last two styles. They like both revolutionary shifts and situations where things are gradually evolving.

Focus of attention

The level where people focus their attention makes a difference to the type of work they might enjoy the most, and their likely communication style.


These are people who are concerned about details – if you’re familiar with Myers Briggs, you’ll recognise this as the ‘sensing’ type (S).


These are people who like looking at the the big picture and overview. In Myers Briggs terms, they are the ‘intuition’ type (N).

When I’m running a Myers Briggs workshop with a team, this dimension is often where communication seems to be at cross purposes – the N team members are too conceptual and ‘in the clouds’ for the more practical S team members, and the S team members are too detailed for the N team members! You need both, of course, but think about the preferred focus of and how best to communicate to someone who is different to you.

Working environment

According to the book, there are three language patterns that reveal what working environment people like best. Create this for them and they’ll thrive.


These people like working alone and having sole responsibility. When they are interrupted, they may lose their train of thought. They may forget to consult others.


Proximity people need clarity about their area of responsibility, but also need to have others involved or close by.


These people want to share responsibility with others. They believe the sum of the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and may struggle if they have to work alone.

Organising workload

This language pattern reveals whether people concentrate more on relationships or on tasks.


This is someone who is focused on thoughts and feeling. A focus on relationships and rapport is extremely important to them.


Their focus is on ideas, systems,  tools and products. Being task-orientated, they may believe you shouldn’t show emotion at work.

In Myers Briggs, this is the classic F and T pairing. This might also help you think about how to show appreciation – the Person/F types like feedback on their effort/progress/style and for it to be specific to them. The Thinking/T types usually like feedback once they’ve accomplished the task, and for it to be about this accomplishment.

What this means to you

It’s useful to think about where you would put yourself and your colleagues in all these different patterns. If you’re the leader, what does this mean to the way you divide up work, motivate and influence people, and lead change?

Remember, there is no right and wrong. All differences are valuable and that’s what makes the world go round! As a leader, being able to harness these differences will increase your chance of success of the team and the well-being of team members.

Further reading

If you found this interesting, you may enjoy our related articles:

Next month

There’ll be no new article for August. I hope you enjoy the summer and I will be back in September with some thoughts about how to empty your busy mind. The full archive of my blogs can be found on my website, with a search feature, so if you can’t wait until September you can explore on there.