1 Big Idea to Think About

  • As we master our words, we will master our lives, master our careers, master our relationships, and design a life that really matters.

2 ways You Can Apply This

  • Increase your vocabulary through reading. 
    1. Select a piece of classical literature and commit to reading 15 minutes daily.  
  • Refine the words you speak through writing. 
    1. Think of a future negotiation.
    2. Frame the negotiation in terms of the other person’s agenda.
    3. Write out a framework of the conversation. 

3 Questions to Ask

  • What is the effect of words on my relationships?
  • How have the words I have used in the past helped me gain or lose influence?
  • How can I use words to help me achieve the results I desire?

Key Moments From The Show 

  • How one police officer turned around a dangerous situation using only his words (1:45)
  • Why words matter (7:00)
  • How you can master the power of your words (8:59)
  • Gain influence by speaking in terms of the other person’s agenda (9:57)

Links You’ll Love From the Episode

Greg McKeown (00:01):

Welcome. I’m your host, Greg McKeown, the author of two New York Times bestsellers, Essentialism and Effortless. And this is a new podcast where I am focused on learning how to negotiate like your life depends on it. What is the effect of your words on your life? What is the effect of your words on your relationships? Where are your words helping you to get what you really want? What if you could use words like a superpower to get people to voluntarily do what you would like them to do? A customer, a teenager, a team member, your manager, a senior executive, or even you. Today, I will share a story, something I am learning, and actionable advice. By the end of this episode, you will be able to frame your words in a way to increase the chance that other people want to do what you want them to do. So let’s get to it.

Greg McKeown (01:21):

My ask of you is that you will teach these ideas to someone else within the next 24 to 48 hours. It’s a double win because you’ll develop your abilities even as you’re increasing the likelihood of other people around you negotiating more effectively. A man had broken up some tables in a bar and had fled southbound. The man was six feet, seven inches, almost 300 pounds. He was white with no shirt. He was sweating profusely, and he was known to be violent. The police officer, George Thompson, called in to look for him, was just two months out of training. He was cruising slowly back and forth behind some taverns when he spotted the fellow in an alley with one outlet. The outlet was right past the officer. George immediately radioed for help. I’ve got a man here as big as a house. Now, the rest of us, if we want to, can roll up the windows, lock the doors, drive off as if we’ve seen nothing.

Greg McKeown (02:32):

But as an officer, George knew he had to deal with the man. He stepped out of the car, and the man was maybe 40 feet away from him. He was holding a broken, jagged whiskey bottle by its neck. And he began to move toward George. George took a deep breath and worked on not sounding as scared as he was. He said, “Sir, I understand you broke some tables and left a bar without paying. The bartenders, pressing charges, disorderly conduct, destruction of private property, theft of services. Put the bottle down, sir, and come with me. You’re under arrest.” But saying so doesn’t make it so. The man-mountain looked the office up and down and said, “You’re not big enough to take me down. Look at you. You’re just a little punk.” Meanwhile, he was slowly drunkenly shuffling towards him. He drew his stick and backed away a bit. And in that moment, he had an epiphany. Words came to him.

Greg McKeown (03:43):

He said, “What you going to do, sir, cut me with that bottle? Listen, you’re a great big guy. You can beat me up. No problem. Look at this face. It’s been hurt before, but let me tell you something. All I’m trying to arrest you for is disorderly conduct. That’s just a misdemeanor. You’ll be in jail overnight. And then you’re out. Cost you maybe 30 bucks if you’re guilty. Then you’re home. Taking me out is not such a hot idea. You hear those sirens? They’re coming for you, sir. Men with big sticks and dogs. People who like to fight. You may hurt some of them, but bottom line, you’re going to jail. Then you’ll be looking at a felony. That’s more like 90 days and hundreds of dollars in fines.” He was still coming, so the officer kept talking. “Do you have a job?” “Yeah.” “Well, you won’t when you get out. What about a woman?”

Greg McKeown (04:38):

“Have you got yourself a lady at home?” “Yeah.” “Well, maybe she’ll be there. Maybe she won’t. Listen, you can do what you want, but let me tell you that that bottle is constituting, as you hold it, a felony. Look, the bartender’s charges are a misdemeanor. I’m looking for a misdemeanor, and you are trying to turn it into a felony. Why don’t you give me a break, and I’ll cut you some slack? Let’s say I didn’t see the bottle. You drop it and come with me. And all we’ve got is a misdemeanor.” To George’s amazement, the man-mountain looked to the bottle as if seeing it for the first time and tossed it aside. He stopped moving. So George said, “Turn around.” And he did. George said, “Put your hands behind you.” And he did that too. George cuffed him, put him in the car, and headed to the jail.

Greg McKeown (05:34):

As he was pulling out of the alley, two backup patrol cars filled with officers and dogs and sticks pulled in with their lights flashing. Realizing he didn’t need them, he felt a strange sense of power he’d never felt before. George was safe. His uniform wasn’t ripped, which he would’ve had to pay for. His face was not bleeding. The other cars could go back into service for the community. And George would be back on patrol in 10 minutes. In that moment, George thought, “Boy, that’s power.” Here was a man under the influence of alcohol rage, fear, and pride. And if the officer had confronted him as he’d been trained to do, he would’ve been in for serious violence. Instead, George had redirected his behavior by cutting across his experience and giving him a fresh, personal view of the situation from his own perspective. In essence, George was making it up as he went along, but he used different pieces of bait to hook him.

Greg McKeown (06:41):

He got him thinking about the value of his time. One night in jail versus several weeks. His money. $30 versus hundreds. His job. Working versus unemployment. His record. Misdemeanor versus a felony. His relationship might be, there might not be. The ability to reach people by putting what you want them to do in terms of what they have to gain or lose is an underused skill of influence. If your opponent, or of course, your customer, has something to gain or lose, you have something of value that you can utilize. You can read that true encounter and more of its analysis in Verbal Judo by George J. Thompson. But here’s the broader point—words matter. As we master our words, we will master our lives, master our careers, master our relationships, master designing a life that really matters. Certainly, for most of my life, I have been fascinated by the power of words. They are often thought of as a neutral agent. You know, they simply live to servers, and they do.

Greg McKeown (08:00):

However, I have found that words are far more causative than that. They don’t just sit idly by as we use them. They have an effect on us. So, for example, if we don’t have sufficient vocabulary, our very thinking will be limited. The a peer WARF hypothesis that supports this. The idea is that the particular language one speaks influences the way one thinks about reality. The most cited example of this in practice is that the Inuit have many words for snow, which helps them to name and therefore understand more precisely the reality of their surroundings. Still, I have found that words go beyond helping us understand reality, as enormous as that effect is, words are so powerful they can alter the meaning of the past. Words are so powerful they can create the future. So all of this has several implications. A few of them, we will benefit greatly by increasing our vocabulary through voracious reading.

Greg McKeown (09:10):

We can seek to not just use words but observe the words we use. We should watch what we say. And the best way I know how to do that is through writing. We can choose never to say things simply because other people tell us to. Words create meaning from our past, help us better understand the present, and help us design the future. If you want to design a life that really matters, you have to learn how to use words in a way that really matters. Indeed, I think we can make it the work of our lives to really understand each other. What do people mean when they use those words? What do we mean when we use them? Now, let me share something that is immediately actionable from this story. And from some of these things, I’ve been learning about the power of words. And it’s this: Speak in terms of the other’s agenda, not your own, especially when working with people beyond your current influence. Think of busy executives or teenagers who, at least on the outside, maybe are showing no interest in what you have to say.

Greg McKeown (10:28):

There is little point in simply talking about what you want. They are often so focused and burdened with their own agenda that some additional request, however valid, can feel like an additional pressure or a burden. With a little preparation, you can express the same desires in a way that is aligned with your, let’s say, manager’s agenda. And that increases the chance that you will be heard and that the negotiation will go well. Let me give you a few examples. So instead of saying, look, I need a raise because my rent is so high and because I think I deserve it. All right. Instead, you can say, I am excited about your effort to achieve X and want to make sure I am only rewarded for making an impact. Here’s a proposal for how I think I can best help. Instead of saying I’m bored with what I’m doing and want to take on something that will help me get promoted.

Greg McKeown (11:32):

Say, I think I could really help move the needle on X objective by doing Y. Instead of saying juggling everything at home has become a real challenge, so I want to continue working from home. Say sometimes I felt like I was being paid to sit around the office when I could have been more productive. Here’s a proposal that allows me to do right by the company while also allowing me continued flexibility. Instead of saying I want to continue working from home because it allows me to be there when my children come home and balance everything I have coming at me, say, I need to dramatically increase the number of days I can be completely focused on X project. For me, that means getting away from the office, staying away from the office. Can we discuss this proposal I’ve written up? Now, none of these examples is perfect, but each illustrates how much better it is to start with, in this case, your manager’s agenda.

Greg McKeown (12:34):

The truth is that to get anyone to act, we have to create in them a desire to do what we want them to do. And by switching this so that we are not talking so much about our agenda, but talking about our agenda within the agenda of the other, opens up a whole conversation, opens up an opportunity to be able to negotiate what really matters most. And if we can get people, busy people, difficult people in challenging situations to do what it is we want them to do, because it is, in fact, in their best interest to do it. Think of that. That is a special kind of influence. That is a special kind of power. And so we can say with George, the officer at the beginning, boy, that’s power. Thank you for listening again. And thank you even more for teaching what you’re listening to here.

Greg McKeown (13:40):

If you found value in this episode, please write a review on Apple podcasts. The first five people to write a review of this episode will receive a signed copy of Effortless. Just send a photo of your review to info@gregmckeown.com. Also, would you like to be part of a live session where we can practice negotiation and conflict resolution skills? If so, sign up at essentialism.com/negotiation, and I will let you know once I am ready to run the first one. Not ready yet, but will be at some point. Remember to subscribe to this podcast so that you can receive the next episode. New episodes drop on Tuesdays and Thursdays. And finally, I just want to say it as clearly as I can. I didn’t just create this podcast. I created this podcast for you.