Mind your language!


Recently I had the opportunity to spend a day working with two of the world’s best designers. It was an inspirational day, learning from people at the very top of their profession. In sport it would be like being able to spend a day training with Lionel Messi or Eliud Kipchoge (one for the runners!).

During my years of working in and around the design profession, I’ve noticed that with the best designers, everything they do is thoughtfully done. Right down to the words they use.

Designers are more likely to use open questions. Instead of saying, “do you think we could do X?”, they’ll say, “How could we do X?”. It’s a subtle but important difference. The answer to the first question could easily be “No”, whereas the second question invites discussion. Good design is about conversation.

On that day in question, there was a word & phrase that our world class designers kept on using. They were even committed to print on our agenda! What were they? Let me tell you.

The phrase was “How might we…..”. Every question or discussion was prefaced with these three words. How Might We is an actual design technique developed by IDEO to turn challenges or problems into opportunities for design. Each of these words is there for a reason:

  • How invites us to be curious, to be inventive and to imagine
  • Might suggests there could be multiple ways to solve this problem
  • We encourages collaboration

So from now on, whenever you’re faced with a challenge or a problem that needs solving, use these three words. How might we…..

The other word that was used a lot, particularly in the breakout sessions in the afternoon, was Argument. After being set the challenge “How might we…” do something, we were then told to ‘have an argument’ about it within our groups. Not a discussion, but an argument. I’d never seen this approach used before, and will admit that when I run workshops I ask my groups to have a discussion.

I guess the reason for telling us to have an argument, is to encourage people to speak up and have different views. Often a discussion ends up being led by the strongest of the group. I saw this happen at a workshop we did at the University recently – you’re left wondering what ideas weren’t shared and about the possible solutions that never emerged.

However, giving us permission to have an argument, to share our views no matter how diametrically opposed they are, makes sure that we get everything on the table. It was incredibly clever, and I’ll be stealing it for my own workshops. In fact I’ve already tried it a couple of times!

In our busy lives, it might seem inconsequential to spend time thinking about the words we use. However, until the robots take over then we’re designing with and for humans, so using the right language in every situation will make a big difference in the outcomes we achieve.

Do you ask open or closed questions? How might we help you change? Let’s have an argument about words in the comments below!

One thought on “Mind your language!

  1. Wow, this has me thinking. I do use open questions but to alter my thinking from discussion to argument, this is something to explore.

    In my workshops I use similar language you highlight in your blog, my initial reaction is nervousness around inviting an argument. This is my belief system kicking in, my chimp brain, as I try to avoid conflict wherever possible.

    The more I reflect on this one word, argument, the more interested and excited I am to try it at my next workshop!

    What a start to a Thursday:)

    Thanks Ali

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