Communication 6: Modal Operators

Communication 6: Modal Operators

Date: 1/1/2001

"Modal Operators" is a linguistic term to indicate 3 ways you relate to what you're doing: necessity, possibility, contingency. That is, do you have to, want to, or wish to do something. Each has it's unique function and blending them correctly can be a recipe for success.

The first step towards realizing your goals is contingency. Most activities start off as an idea in someone's mind. Contingency helps you consider things that are beyond what you think is possible to achieve. Since most of us do not realize our potential, it can be useful to widen our horizons by wishing and hoping. One way of doing this is to ask yourself a question like "If I were guaranteed success, what projects would I pursue?" Then sit back, relax, and let yourself dream in a purposeful way.

I once met a doctor who had changed his whole way of life. He told me how a friend had brought him to a weekly class given by a certain Rabbi H and how after several months he and his family had begun living a religious lifestyle. Each class started off with Rabbi H lecturing and ended up a "lively" discussion between Rabbi H and Doctor E. "Rabbi H was totally unreasonable", he recounted. Then Doctor E paused and added, "but the world wasn't built by reasonable people."

You can be sure that great accomplishments do not begin with someone being reasonable, practical, pragmatic. More likely they start off with a wish, a vision, a hope.

Of course, if our dreams are not grounded in reality we may wind up building castles in the air. The second step would be to consider the possibility of the dream. You might do this by asking yourself questions like "What concrete steps can I take to realize this idea?"

Finding that point where contingency touches possibility is crucial in realizing your dreams and your potential. Too much contingency and you will be left with all kinds of unfinished plans that "you're hoping to get around to some day" or that "you'd like to do when the right opportunity presents itself." Too much possibility and you may feel like you're not accomplishing what you could accomplish--and you would be right!

The third step is developing an attitude of necessity. Behind every great accomplishment is a person with an attitude of "it has to be done." This helps keep us going when obstacles present themselves. More than 25 years ago the American media interviewed a representative of the Lakewood Yeshiva. The reporter must have assumed that large Yeshivas have endowment funds backing them financially because he asked the representative how large Lakewood's endowment was. He replied that Lakewood had no endowment at all! Seeing the look of astonishment on the reporter's face the representative explained "You see, we can't postpone learning Torah until we have the financial stability that an endowment provides; we have to learn torah now so we raise funds to keep the Yeshiva going."

One way you can develop an attitude of necessity in your personal goals is by asking yourself questions like "Why is this important to me?" Keep this question in mind and you will eventually compile a list of reasons that will inspire you and create a momentum you can draw on--especially when things aren't running smoothly.

Here, too, it is important to have the right amount of necessity: too much can be stressful and, in the long run, counter-productive. One study about highly successful people shows that they are very inspired and feel a strong sense of purpose about their work. They do not, however, feel forced.

Modal Operators are important considerations in communication, too. Pay attention to the words your co-conversationalist is using. Are they primarily words of

  • necessity (need, must, got to, should, have to, will, etc.--or negations of these)
  • possibility (can, want, choose, able, etc.--or negations)
  • contingency (wish, might, maybe, would like, hope, could, try, etc. or negations)

By your using the same modal operators, he will feel more understood: you are relating to the issue in the same way as he is.

Let's take an example of a child who "wishes he could do better in school." This could also be applied to a boss with an employee or to other situations. Try to imagine how the child would feel when he hears each of the following responses.

#1 "I am glad that you wish you could do better. Later tonight perhaps you'd like to sit down and discuss how you might make improvements."

#2 "I am glad that you want to do better. Later tonight, we can sit down and discuss how you want to make improvements."

#3 "I am glad that you see that you've got to do better. Later tonight we must sit down and discuss how you will make whatever improvements are necessary."

Typically people do not speak with only one modal operator and that is why these examples might sound somewhat artificial. I just wanted you to experience how much of a difference it can make. Even in a more natural speaking style it is usually a good idea to start off with the modal operator that the other person is favoring. Notice the difference that changing the modal operator in the opening sentence can make in the following two responses to the same child.

#4 "It really would be nice for you to do better in school and I think that you really can improve. Do you want to discuss how to go about making these improvements? Doing well in school is necessary for many things in life."

#5 "It really is a must for you to do better in school and I think that you really can improve. Do you want to discuss how to go about making improvements? Doing well in school is necessary for many things in life."

It is important to remember that none of these responses is "correct." Any one of them could be appropriate depending on the child, the situation, and the relationship of the parent to child. However, as a general rule, people will feel more "understood" if you favor the modal operator that they are favoring. And when "being understood" is an issue between people, this can be a significant step in the right direction.

Once you have established "rapport" with the child by matching his modal operator, you can expand the ways he relates to the issue by changing to a modal operator of possibility or necessity or a combination. Otherwise he may remain with nothing more than an ephemeral "wishing he could do better." Example #4 is one example of how you can do this.

How can you discover alternative ways of expressing yourself and improve the results you're getting in your communication? There is a systematic way that is excellent, but let's try a more familiar approach.

First, let yourself imagine other ways you could say the same message. Just let your imagination flow in a purposeful way. You might consider some of the principles we have discussed in these newsletters. You might ask yourself how else could I word this in a more effective way. If you know someone who always seems to know the right thing to say, you might ask yourself how would they say it.....Second, ask yourself specifically how and where you can apply these alternatives.....Third, ask yourself why improving your ability to communicate is important to you.....