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Possibility Language

 

Techniques > Use of language > Persuasive language > Possibility Language

Method | Example | Discussion | See also

 

Method

Talk about possibilities rather than absolutes. Muse about the future. Challenge their assumptions or otherwise get them out of their limited thinking and into considering what could be rather than what cannot be. All you need to do is to show that one thing is true to imply that many others could also be true.

To use the language of possibility, move away from the language of certainty. Do not say 'will', 'must', 'cannot' and so on. Use possibility words such as:

can, could, may, maybe, might, perhaps, possible

Ask questions that suggest possibility and extend truth such as:

  • What if ...
  • How could ...
  • How about ...
  • Wouldn't it be nice if ...
  • Who else ...

There are many other verbs that imply possibility through such as imagination and exploration, and which may be woven into what is being said, such as:

believe, consider, challenge, discover, examine, experiment, explore, find, imagine, hypothesize, investigate, look, muse, ponder, potential, reckon, research, speculate, suppose, think, try, uncertain, unsure, wonder

If they deny possibilities, ask them 'why not' and then handle their objections, for example by asking them to name when something they deny has actually happened.

It can be helpful to use creative tools such as brainstorming to generate possibilities. This may be done individually or jointly.

Example

You said you can't do it. Have you tried? Many others can do it. Perhaps you can too.

 What if we could get more people on the project?

Have you thought about taking extended leave so you can visit your parents?  HR might well be sympathetic, I think.

They said it can't be done. You know I think it may be possible.

Discussion

People often make judgements and decisions in which they conclude that things are not possible, acceptable or reasonable. As a result, they stop thinking about these things and never really consider the many possible ways they could achieve their goals by other means.

By bringing up possibility, you are asking them to them to think about things that they either have quickly dismissed or perhaps have never even thought about. This can result in initial resistance but, if you persist, can lead to the 'aha' of enlightenment.

Possibility language reverses the assumptions that others hold, creating a new assumption that something is possible rather than impossible. When viewed as a spectrum of possibility, impossible exists only at the very end -- the rest of the spectrum is various possibilities.

Possibility can also be created by rethinking goals. For example f you reframe a goal of 'getting to work on time' as 'getting work done on time', then you may find new ways of avoiding the morning rush. When working with other people, discovering their goals is always a good first step in any case. This may then be explored for possibility focus before moving to possibilities in deeper issues.

The opposite of possibility language is certainty language, which implies that everything is known and there is no uncertainty. Talk is in absolutes. Things are good and bad, right and wrong, with nothing in between.

After you have created a view of possibility, the next step may be going from unlikely to likely, and showing how this itself is quite feasible. This may use words that show a greater than average chance of success, such as:

quite certain, good chance, likely, probable

Beyond this, you can nudge action by suggesting that people try something or otherwise have a go to find out if it works in practice. Like possibility, trial open up new futures but with an element of safety that does not require immediate commitment.

Possibility language can get agreement where direct requests may not. For example 'Would you agree?' can be better than 'Do you agree?' Both effectively mean the same thing, asking for present agreement, yet the more indirect nature of 'would' softens the request. People who are unsure say 'yes' because they would agree if they had more information and assurances. Yet after saying 'yes' they may not need that extra detail (but if they do, you can ask for it and give it to them, of course).

In language, modal verbs (such as 'can', 'could' and 'might') describe possibility. Modality also includes necessity, with words like 'have to', 'should' and 'must'.

There is a formal logic associated with possibility, called modal logic which may use a mathematical notation.

See also

Types of verb, Assumption principle, Limiting Beliefs

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