Unlock Your Brain: Use Proactive Language

So I think I’ve discovered a simple but important life hack this week: focusing on my freedom to choose and proactive language. It’s a simple twist in thinking and self-dialogue that has been making a big difference for me. I think it’s important for teacher leaders today.

I’m proud to teach at a Leader in Me school—a culture tied to Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. There were many thought provoking elements during my training last week, but the freedom to choose has been standing out in my mind. Covey teaches that there is an important space between every stimulus we encounter (e.g. event, conversation, email, observation, etc.) and how we respond to it. He calls this space “the freedom to choose.” Covey writes:

In the space between stimulus (what happens) and how we respond, lies our freedom to choose. Ultimately, this power to choose is what defines us as human beings. We may have limited choices but we can always choose. We can choose our thoughts, emotions, moods, our words, our actions; we can choose our values and live by principles. It is the choice of acting or being acted upon.

I felt like the concept of “freedom to choose” was something that already resonated with me and reminded me of things I had heard before. However, I was really interested in Covey’s teaching about the use of “proactive language” in our spoken and inner dialogue. Proactive language emphasizes the freedom to choose when we describe our choices to others or to ourselves. Examples include phrases like: I can…, I choose…, and I will… According to Covey, proactive language alters the brain in positive ways, releasing beneficial hormones that unlock thinking and problem-solving. In contrast, reactive language includes phrases like: I have to…, He made me…, or I don’t have a choice… According to Covey, reactive language releases negative hormones in the brain that limit our thinking. I think this is pretty fascinating!

So while you are checking tasks off your TO-DO list, consider saying/thinking something like: I’m choosing to do this first so I can meet my deadline and leave work on time. This phrase is more empowering than: Ugh, I have to do this work before I can leave. 

When you hear about a bill in the state legislature that will negatively affect students you serve, consider saying/thinking: I have some choices like sending an email, calling my legislators, and talking to others who might share my concerns. This phrase is much more empowering than: I have no influence or voice in educational policy. We have to stop saying these things aloud or remaining silent when others say these things around us. It’s brain science!

I was amazed when proactive language helped me quickly overcome a food temptation at Wal-Mart yesterday! There I was in the check out line, standing beside a freezer full of delicious ice cream treats. I was worn down from the chaos of wild children and overwhelmed parents in the school supply section. I barely made it out of there alive! Celebrating my victory and waiting to check out, I stared into the ice cream freezer and the mental battle began….but I was shocked when the simple phrase: I’m choosing to be healthy ended the struggle. This proactive phrase was so much more useful than my typical phrase: I can’t have that (or that…or that…or that!). Now, I’m really looking forward to applying this idea all year to see how proactive language can change my life for the better.

I think that there might be some magic in proactive language to maximize energy, maintain focus on the things we can change, and feel empowered by the choices we are making. I think that we can all choose to have a great year—make this one your best yet!

Image credit: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/d/de/Mr_Pipo_speech_balloon.svg/500px-Mr_Pipo_speech_balloon.svg.png


Jess Ledbetter

Dr. Jess Ledbetter teaches preschool students with developmental delays in a Title I school in Glendale, Arizona. She is a National Board Certified Teacher (ENS-ECYA), an Arizona Hope Street Group Teacher Fellow Alumni, and a Candidate Support Provider for teachers seeking their National Board Certification. She earned her doctorate in Educational Leadership and Innovation at ASU in 2016. Her mixed methods research used a Communities of Practice model as a strategy for early career special education teachers to collaborate with peers to increase their team leadership skills working with paraeducators in their individual classrooms.

Dr. Ledbetter is guided by the belief that all teachers are leaders in their classrooms and possess the skills to be leaders within their schools, districts, communities, and greater context. She hopes you will contribute to the dialogue by leaving comments about your own experiences, opinions, and insights so that real-life stories from our schools can inform the policies that affect students, teachers, and their communities.

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