Words all by themselves don’t create anything. But the words you choose and how you put them together will influence the thinking, feelings, and actions of others. In short, your language will help to achieve the results you want, improve the quality of your relationships, and create the respect that may be lacking. I was fascinated years ago to learn that the Aramaic phrase “abracadabra,” so frequently used by magicians, means “I create as I speak.” This left me wondering what I was creating.
I first started to notice the results that my words were creating when instructing my two young sons about the care of our lawn. I noticed that when I used the sentence, “If you cut the lawn by 2:00 p.m., we will go to the movies,” they never finished cutting the lawn by 2 p.m. However, if I said, “When the lawn is done by 2 p.m., we will go to the movies,” then the task was almost always completed. I started to notice that many words have an assumption behind them that impacts performance. For example, “if” seems to project a sense of doubt; whereas, “when” seems to project expectation and completion. Although both words describe a positive consequence for performance, I always achieved a far superior result “when” I clarified the consequences in this manner.
As an attorney, I was frequently asked to “interrogate” a witness as opposed to “interview” a witness. “Interrogate” has the connotation that the witness is guilty, and, if asked the right questions, might be manipulated into admitting guilt. An “interview” describes more of an exchange of ideas, an exploration of perspectives, and a sense of mutual willingness to openly share or talk about an issue. Stopping to think about the words you use and how you use them will help you to improve the outcome of your conversations as well as your professional image.
Here are a few word tips that will help to achieve clarity and specificity in your messaging.
1. Speak to contribute something worthwhile. There seems to be more and more talk in the media, in the meeting room, and in the classroom where the message is vague and left to the listeners’ interpretation. If I find myself asking, “Why are they telling me this?" or “What did they mean by that?", then I know that the volume of words is adding little if anything to the conversation. If the person speaking is vague and seems to be rambling in no particular direction without a specific context or clear meaning, we simply tune them out. When this happens repeatedly, we usually just shut down before that person begins speaking. Identify the intent of your message and then let that drive what you want to say and how you say it. Deliver your message clearly and succinctly.
2. Talk less and listen more. Some people think out loud, others like to hear themselves talk, and others are uncomfortable with silence, so they fill the air with words. Listening to what others have to say, asking clarifying questions, and inviting them to contribute to the conversation will create respect while enhancing your understanding of their perspective. Share your perspective, but then listen twice as much as you talk.
3. Use “I” statements. When we become frustrated, we often begin a sentence with “you.” Beginning with “you” can come off as an accusation and will put people on the defensive. Notice the difference between, “You don’t know what you are doing,” versus, “I wonder if you know what you are doing.” The use of “I” statements at the beginning of a sentence puts the focus on you, rather than them and will help defuse a potentially defensive response.
4. Invite reflection with questions. Describing the situation through the use of questions initiates thinking while painting a picture that creates empathy in your listener. For example, “What do you imagine the client will think when we don’t meet their deadline today?” or “What kinds of feelings will they have about doing business with us going forward?”
So why do this?
People tend to respond better to self-discovery than you telling them something. For example, “How do you think our clients will feel when we don’t meet the deadline today?” “What should we do to help mitigate the damage?” as opposed to, “Our clients will be really upset you didn’t meet their deadline today. What are you going to do about it?” People will relate more to the images and the feelings that your questions create than you telling them how badly they performed.
5. Avoid redundancies and qualifiers. Avoid redundancies and qualifiers to deliver a more powerful and concise message. People often use redundancies and qualifiers to soften their message. For example, “I personally feel,” “I, myself, think that …,” or “That’s just what I think,” or, “I really didn’t have time to think this through first, but …” Using these kinds of phrases in your conversations will water down or possibly confuse your message. Be concise and clear in delivering your message.
6. Ask Don’t Tell. Once, I became frustrated with a client who wasn’t keeping their commitments. I finally sent an email that said, “I need the following….” I received feedback that making such a demand was very demeaning to the individual. Using a question format to make a request such as “Could you help me by …?” is much more respectful than “I need….”
7. Stop setups. Have you ever had someone say to you, “No offense…” or, “I don’t mean to offend you, but…?” Then what follows is offensive. Setting up a message or conversation negatively in this fashion does more to shut the person down than to increase engagement. You’ll also want to notice when people say, “I have an observation to share.” When you hear this, you will usually hear anything but an observation of the facts. More likely you will hear a statement of judgment, opinion, or interpretation without any factual support.
8. Eliminate vague words or phrases, slang, or colloquialisms. The first time I heard my teenage son say, “That was sick!” made me wonder who was sick and what he was talking about. Also, phrases like “perfect”, “awesome”, “bandwidth,” “skin in the game”, “my bad”, or “out of the box” may not accurately describe what you mean and are subject to misinterpretation.
9. Lose overused words. Many words like “scalable”, “leverage”, “synergy”, “strategic”, or “thought leadership” are so overused and broad that no one really knows what you mean when you use them. Unfortunately, people won’t ask you what you mean because everyone thinks they know what these words mean or they don’t want to run the risk of looking stupid for asking. Being specific will eliminate any doubt about what you mean.
10. Avoid profanity. Someone once said that profanity was the attempt of a feeble mind to express itself forcefully. You need to identify your audience and the intent of your message. Using four letter expletives can be highly offensive and inappropriate to some people, may damage your image, and dilute the power of your message. Using such language also may cause many people to shut down and become defensive which means that they may not hear or understand what you are saying.
Notice that each of these tips requires some thought and preparation on your part. Obviously, you can’t or won’t want to stop and think about every message you convey. However, if the message is an important one or if it has the potential to turn into a difficult conversation, then you might want to consider the context of your message which we discussed last week and think about your wording. Being deliberate and intentional about the message you want to deliver will insure your message has an impact and that you are clearly understood. After all, you want to say what you mean, and mean what you say.
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