Writing with the Language of Possibility: Part 3 of a 3 Part Series

The language of possibility means:

  • language patterns that open things up for the reader, breaking through limiting beliefs, and getting round subconscious resistance
  • the intentional use of language to create a feeling or state of possibility in your reader

In the first part of the series I looked at when the language of possibility might be useful, and times when you might want to incorporate it into your writing.

In the second part I explored things you can do before you start to write to manage your state and set your intention.  We also looked at editing for feeling, impact and resonance.

In this third and final part of the series I’m going to explore some of the language patterns in more detail.

Zine Study XIV: language by Shawn Econo

Zine Study XIV: language by Shawn Econo

1. Verbs

I first came across the language of possibility in a coaching context, learning how to be more aware of the verbs people were using, often unconsciously, to describe the situation they were in.  When you’re feeling really stuck you tend to use verbs that suggest necessity. (This is sometimes described as modal operators of necessity vs modal operators of possibility.)

Verbs of necessity include things like:

  • have to
  • should
  • must

They tend to give us a feeling of weight and burden - hence the stuckness.

You will realise the difference in feeling when you swap them for verbs that suggest possibility instead, verbs like:

  • would like to
  • could
  • might

The feeling you get is instantly lighter and more playful.  This simple shift in words can be enough to move you out of a stuck state when you monitor and edit your self-talk.  The same applies in the writing you’re doing for other people (because most of us resist any voice that seems like it’s telling us what we have to do.)

This is a simple one to experiment with in your writing. It’s also worth watching in the way you talk to yourself (including journals, blogs etc).  If your language is full of verbs of necessity you might be putting so much pressure onyourself you’re getting stuck.

More on verbs of possibility here (both from my earlier coaching site)

The language of possibility

Modal operators

2. Questions

Questions often feature in articles, posts and books that are aimed at achieving some kind of shift or change in the reader.  It’s worth spending some time thinking about the way you frame those questions.

(Setting your intention will make a big difference here, and believing that your reader has all the resources they need to achieve that change.  More on intention and belief in part 2 of the series.)

‘Why?’ questions for example can make your reader feel defensive.  ‘What?’ and ‘how?’ encourage your reader to look beyond and explore new possibilities.

Experiment with different question words and see what kind of feeling you get from them.

Which ones give you the greatest sense of what’s possible?

For more on questions I’ve produced a free pdf: Asking Questions for a Change.

3. Positive language

Try and focus on the positive version of what you’re writing about.

It creates a subtle affirmation of the positive as you write.  The first sentence included the embedded command to “focus on the positive” - and that message will sink in.

Referring to the problem state - even with the suggestion to work round or avoid it - still means you’re writing about the negative, and creates the embedded command to do the opposite of what you mean.

In the alternative version “try not to write about the problem” the embedded command is “write about the problem”…

See what I mean?

4. Repetition

You can use repetition of key words and phrases to reinforce the positive message about what’s possible.

Look for natural ways to use those embedded commands in order to focus on the positive.

5. Affirmation

The more you get used to writing with the language of possibility, the more you’ll find that way of thinking working its way into your consciousness.  The more you shift to writing with a focus on the positive, the more you’ll find those embedded commands working their way into the way you think, write and act.

And the repetition makes a difference - for the reader, and the writer.

(Yes, of course - don’t overdo it or you’ll end up with reader resistance.  We’re talking light, playful, possible here.)

6. Rhythm

Writing with the language of possibility means looking for patterns that have rhythm, that play and dance on the page and in your reader’s mind, that linger and continue to roll long after they’ve been read.

Rhythm can help you achieve that effect.

That doesn’t mean you have to start writing poetry… just tune in to the rhythm of your words, and edit to let them flow.

7. Playful Words

Some words have a more playful, pleasing feeling than others. To be honest I’m not entirely sure why - perhaps it’s that rhythm thing again?

I was reminded of this recently when a reader said he preferred the word “tenacity” to “perseverance”.  Me too - it sounds lighter, more playful somehow, and the “ity” on the end definitely helps it to bounce :-)

8. Pacing and Leading

If you’re writing to open up a sense of possibility in another person, you’ll need to do a little work to take them there.  You can’t thrown them straight in.

I like to think of it as walking along a road with someone: you want them to get comfortable with your pace, your rhythm, your presence, before you start to do anything more dramatic.

There are lots of writing things you can do to achieve that pacing and leading effect, but it includes using conversational language to soften your tone, and establish a sense of rapport and human contact with your reader.

More on pacing and leading here.

9. Packaging

I’m not normally one for saying you need to add in extra words, but when you’re trying to create a particular mood or feeling, before you open up the possibility of change, you might well need to work in some seemingly unnecessary words.

They’re just what we would do naturally in a conversation - to put someone at ease, to establish rapport, to create a sense of shared space.

So remember not just to look at the language patterns themselves, but the way you package what’s round about, keeping the emphasis on playful, fun, creative, light, and dancing with possibility on the page.


That’s a bit of a whistle stop tour of some of the language patterns not just of possibility and but also writing with rapport (the latter being the topic of my next book if I ever get round to sitting down and writing it…)

I think I’ve covered the main bases, but as ever would love your feedback on other things you’d like to include in a guide to the language of possibility.


That wraps up the series, and very nearly the theme too…

Stay tuned for the final instalment on possibility on Friday :-)