Which way are you looking?

The words you use in your everyday language show whether you are looking forwards to your future or constantly wanting to go back to your past.

Graham Jones
4 min readMar 15, 2021
Which way are you looking? (Image heading)

Sometimes you hear something on the TV news, and you can’t help yourself saying, “you are joking…!” That happened to me the other day when I heard the newsreader say that there were plans to open the UK’s first deep coal mine in 30 years.

Now, forgive me, but I hadn’t caught up with the notion that we would have a new coal mine in the UK. However, plans have been mooted for the past three years to bring back coal mining. And, strangely, 40 Conservative MPs support the project. That’s odd because, under Margaret Thatcher, the Tory party was behind coal mining’s swift demise, sending many parts of the UK into deep local recessions.

We now know that coal-fired power is environmentally damaging. Indeed, there are only four coal-fired power stations in the UK, and they are all due to close within the next four years. Plus, the National Grid just calls on them when necessary. Much of the time, we do not use electricity that is generated by burning coal.

So, why the rush to go back to coal? The answer, apparently, is that it can help in steel production. What seems to have eluded the people wanting to restore coal mining is that the environment does not know whether the coal is burned for electricity or steel. It’s the same damage that happens.

Instead of looking forward to alternative manufacturing methods, the steel producers are looking behind them at what has worked in the past. The argument for the new coal mine is that it will reduce imports as well as creating jobs.

I’m no engineer, but I don’t believe it is beyond the wit of the manufacturing experts to come up with a way of making steel that doesn’t need coal. However, there is a problem for these experts. Expertise comes as a result of experience. That means their brains have a starting position in the past. Looking for alternatives inevitably looks backwards with the “what do we already do and know” style of thinking.

This is a similar situation to the one I faced in a meeting this week. I had been asked to attend because the chairperson believed I would have an “interesting view”. I spent the first half-hour of the meeting listening attentively to the people arguing their points of view. Then the chairperson asked me what I thought.

I said, “I have been making some notes about what you have all been saying, and my notepaper is littered with words like ‘back’, ‘return’, ‘past’, ‘what we used to do’, and ‘the old way’. In other words, no-one appears to be looking forwards, even though this is the only direction in which your business can travel.”

There was a period of silence after I said that. So I added, “When you use these backwards-facing words, it indicates that your subconscious brain is in the past. It is looking at history, not opportunity. Otherwise, you would be using different words.”

I am sure you have heard similar words when people say things about the pandemic, such as “when we go back to the office” or “I can’t wait to return to normal”. Those statements indicate a subconscious preference for the past rather than the future. Unless you are a time traveller, there is no “going back”; you can only go forward.

We tend to prefer the past. It is predictable and comfortable, plus we understand the risks. The future, though, is not predictable, and the risks are unknown. Hence we dislike it because it triggers anxiety due to a lack of certainty.

However, your business or your work only has one place to go — forwards. Your job is just heading in one direction — to the future. So isn’t it time to start thinking about the future and not the past?

The past is behind you. Office meetings? Gone. Commuting? Disappeared. Regular working hours? In the past. The future is different — it is never the same as what went before. However, the changes ahead of us now are more extensive than ever.

Perhaps, therefore, it is time to change our language to trick our subconscious brain into being more forward-looking. Instead of saying “go back to the office,” you could say “going into the office” (back is past, into is future). Or you could use wording like “what I am going to do once the pandemic is over is walk towards my office”. That would be more future-thinking than “what I want is to go back into my office”. Your brain will continue to look back if you use words that imply the past.

Research conducted in Norway four years ago shows that entrepreneurs tend to use more forward-looking and future-based words in their everyday language. I suspect that if we were to measure Tory politicians’ linguistic habits, we would find a significant number of backwards-looking phrases. They are “conservative” after all.

So the question for you and your business is whether you want to look backwards or forwards? Do you want to go back 30 years to those coal mining days? Or do you want to look forwards to something bright and exciting? The words you use in your everyday language may need changing. Every possible piece of success in your job or your business lays ahead of you. It’s time to ensure your subconscious brain agrees.



Graham Jones

Graham Jones is an Internet Psychologist who helps business understand online customer behaviour http://www.grahamjones.co.uk