Hidden Language: Discover the True Intent of Your Words

‘Don’t Run’. This Was My Dad.

We had just come back from the weekly food shop. I was 7. Keen to help Mum and Dad unload the shopping from the boot of the car into the house. Dad had given me a glass jar of orange juice to take into the house. And yes, the inevitable happened. There I was – sprawled on the concrete drive. I’d run, slipped, and now was at one with the glass! He spent the 6 hours we waited in the Accident and Emergency department of the hospital, telling me that he had told me not to run. The 12 stitches in the middle of my left hand still ache when it’s cold outside. I’m now 49.

It’s not his fault. My Dad didn’t know in the ’70s what many realise now – there’s a hidden language within the language that we use. If you know how to listen for the hidden language, you can almost read people’s minds. You can discover their true intentions. Imagine if you are negotiating and you could know what price they really were happy to sell at, or when your partner gives you options for the things to do at the weekend, you know which one they want to do. Or how to tell when someone really is precious about something. It is all possible.

The Power Words

My Dad didn’t mean for me to run. He just didn’t realise that there are powerful words that destroy the other words. For example, ‘Don’t run’. As a boy, I hear ‘run’ because that is what I liked to do at that age. At school, my friends and I just ran around the school field. Raced each other. Played tag. My brain was literally waiting for someone to say ‘run’. To me, he did.

Green grass field with with Please keep off the grass sign
Please keep of the grass – the power of words makes people want to go onto the grass

When we give feedback to people, we soften our sentences. We use phrases like, ‘It’s not that you’re bad at your job’. All the appraisee just heard was ‘I’m bad at my job’. This is the expectation of employees because they want praise, yet they fear more being told that they are no good. Their brain is waiting for the word, like the boy waiting to hear ‘run’. After saying the dreaded sentence, the appraiser backtracks as she realises that it had not come out right. They recognise afterwards the power of the word ‘bad’ but not before.

Don’t try to soften the sentences with ‘not’. People don’t hear it. Be more transparent. A better phrase for feedback is, ‘You are great at building relationships with people. You would be even better if you listened to those people more’.

The Give-Away Words

A typical negotiation results in a discussion on price. ‘I want to pay £850’. And the reply, ‘You can’t have it at that price. I’ll accept £900’. In the midst of that discussion, the negotiators will give each other signals. Like the ‘tell’ of a poker player. Unfortunately, most will miss it. It’s the little words that give us away, allowing the more effective negotiators to get the better deal.

Look out for words such as:

  • ‘About’
  • ‘In the region of’
  • ‘Around’

These are the words that give away our position. A second-hand car deal – the discussion on price has been going on for about 5 minutes. The seller says, ‘I could take around £4,500’. An effective negotiator hears the word ‘around’ because it means that £4,500 is the price she would like. She would also accept a lower price. It happens quickly. It is hard to notice, but if you do, it’s a clue as to what they are thinking.

The complexities of the hidden language come when you take the essence of the power word and the give-away word. A sentence such as, ‘I’ll take no lower than about £4,500’. The power words are ‘take’ and ‘lower’, and the give-away word is ‘about’. What did the negotiator really mean? That they will take lower than £4,500 – They are just trying to project a tougher stance!

The Options Words

My wife and I were discussing the upcoming weekend. Her question was, ‘Would you like to go and see a film, go out for dinner, or see Mum and Dad?’. Whenever you are given options the last option is always the option, they want you to choose. It’s a little like the magicians that ask you to count to 10 or say the months of the year to guess your birthday. They are listening for the pause you make before you say your number or month. The two parts of hidden language in my wife’s question were; firstly, that she paused before offering the third option, and secondly that the last option is always the one the person wants.

Toddler boy unwrapping a lollipop in a park outdoors
Instead of hiding the option you want in amongst others, just be direct and say what you want

Notice yourself – when you offer someone 3 options, the last one will be the one you want, and you’ll pause briefly before you say it. The other options are just because you want to appear more accommodating. In actual fact, you want to do one thing. You are just being an ‘adult’. Kids don’t do this. ‘I want a lolly’. They don’t say, ‘Shall we get a drink, go in the sea, or get a lolly?’. Sometimes life might just be a little simpler if we acted like children again.

In Summary…

We all use a hidden language because we have learnt to be kinder to be people (‘You’re not bad’), negotiate a little (‘I could not accept lower than…’), and be more accommodating (‘Which would you like to…’). By understanding this hidden language, you can better understand people’s intentions. This will help you to be a better people manager, make better deals, and be a better partner.

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