Understanding the power of past, present and future when speaking

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There is a simple speaking secret which will help anyone to negotiate successfully, resolve conflicts and broach difficult subjects with confidence. It’s as easy as understanding the power of: past, present and future.


In his brilliant book Winning Arguments the witty writer Jay Heinrich’s summarizes the three tenses of speaking:





They can be explained as follows:

Past tense- Blame

This is the tense of judgment and justice. The past tense assigns blame or praise of someone or something. Aristotle was wary of this tense because it rarely leads to a payoff and often results in a punishment.

e.g. ‘Did The Artist deserve to win the Oscar for best picture?’

e.g. ‘You borrowed my dress, didn’t you?’

e.g. ‘ Was it Colonel Mustard, in the living room, with the candlestick?’

Present tense- Values

The nature of this tense connects or separates people.  It is used to discover if you and the person you’re talking to agree or disagree on the subject of your conversation. People use the preset to discuss if something is good or bad, right or wrong, safe or unsafe.

e.g. ‘Should we have a referendum on the alternative vote?’

e.g.’ Do core virtues exist?’

e.g. ‘Do you think Simon Cowell is hot?’

Future tense- Choice

Opportunity exists in the future. Therefore this tense is the most constructive. It is used to negotiate, reach consensus and make plans. It is the tense most likely to result in a positive outcome.

e.g. ‘Skiing or beach holiday this August?’

e.g. ‘Will you marry me?’

e.g ‘How can I help you?’

If you are stuck in an argument going nowhere you can try shifting to the future tense of opportunity and choice. You will notice that a change in tense results in a change in the tone of a conversation. This is because the future tense diffuses tension by disentangling you from your present problem and focusing on a potential solution.

So far I have applied tenses to questions but see how they affect answers too, can you notice a difference in tone in the dialogue below? Imagine George and Betsy are going for dinner. Betsy walks down the stairs…

George:  Is that what you’re wearing?

Betsy:  Why did you just say that? You wore that awful Hawaiian shirt yesterday.’ ( past tense- blame)

Betsy: ‘Right, are you saying I should change?’ (present tense- values)

Betsy: ‘ Maybe I’ll try the black dress on instead’ ( future tense- choice)


Was George trying to get Betsy to change, or just speaking out loud?

It’s important to set your goal first and keep reminding yourself what you want to achieve throughout the discussion/ speech. Without a clear aim how will you choose the best tense and most advantageous approach? Ask yourself do you want to go over past actions, define the boundaries of common values or make plans for the future.


–  Bianca

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