Mind Your Language
I work with a lot of teams in my capacity as a coach and consultant. Something that is rarely given enough emphasis, and yet is incredibly important, is the full impact of the language we use.
Sure, there’s heaps to be said about the importance of non-verbal communication – we all know it makes up around 90% of what others take away from any conversation – but this 90% is only effective if it is congruent with the language being used. Be warned that if the language we select is clumsy then it can disrupt everything.
In fact, that the words we say to one another regularly can unintentionally cause conflict, confusion and misunderstanding unless we are mindful of what we into the room. This can be very problematic for the cohesion of teams and clients alike because the impact tends to happen unconsciously and nobody can quite put their finger on what is wrong, leading to all sorts of neuroses.
Here are five key things to stay mindful of with the words that you choose and how you use them that should help to prevent a lot of the above:
- ‘But’ & ‘However’
These ‘fillers’ regularly fall from our mouths without us realising and they can create a lot of ill feeling. Be particularly careful with phrases like,
“I hear what you’re saying but what about…” Essentially this translates as ‘I hear what you’re saying but I don’t buy into it.’
“I think this has worked well however…” Translates as ‘I have some faults to pick at in terms of how this worked.’
And be even more careful of beginning your sentences with ‘But…’ It immediately feels hostile, closed and conflicting.
Instead of ‘But’ and ‘However’ choose the word ‘And’. Or restructure what you say completely. This is easier said than done for most people. Expect to stumble and fall and then to keep working at it. You will get there and you will see a marked positive impact on rapport and group dynamics when you do.
- I / You / We
‘I’, ‘You’ and ‘We’ feature in most of our conversations and all are needed. The thing to be aware of with these is the balance between them all. Too much of ‘I’ can come across as self-righteous, self-absorbed or self-serving, too much of ‘You’ can come across as blaming. Ensure that when you are working with a client or team you regularly bring things back to a shared vision with the use of ‘We’.
Employing a good blend of ‘I’, ‘You’ and ‘We’ feels level, respectful, aware and collaborative. This in turn creates a solid foundation with which to weather any other storms that may ensue.
If you are not happy with the answers you are receiving then the easiest thing to do is blame the answerer. The most effective thing to do, though, is ask a different type of question. There are more options than simple open or closed questions.
Rhetorical questions can help to land a concept without the engagement of conversation. A hypothetical question can help people to think beyond their usual filters and limitations. Leading questions need to be handled with care but can be useful when closing a tough negotiation. So what other questions are there?
I’m a huge fan of Super Open questions when you need more information and specifics. There are three main ones and it is simply about how you begin the questioning:
‘Tell me [how you got to this solution]’
‘Explain to me [where the team are with this]’
‘Describe to me [what happened at the meeting]’
With all of these the recipient has space to respond fully to you and go into some detail if needed.
Two things to note when using Super Open questions: 1) you must stop talking after you position them and then actually listen to the answer. Do not interrupt. 2) If you are pushed for time or against a deadline, do not use them. Opt for closed questioning so as you can simply clip through and get the job done.
This one I see so much of. And if you are a confident speaker with big ideas and lots of enthusiasm and/or empathy then you really do have to look out for this one. (Confession – this is something I have to constantly stay mindful of!)
If an idea excites you, you resonate, have your own similar example or story, it can be so easy to jump in and take over the conversation. This might feel great to you – you can contribute, you have lots to offer, wow this is exciting… and so on. The problem with this is that other people can often feel hijacked or dominated. This can lead to resentment, ill feeling and other not-so-useful undercurrents within teams and other business relationships.
So, if you catch yourself hijacking (and some of you will, even with the best intentions in the world to not) then the best thing you can do is ask a question to hand back the conversation to someone else (see point three above – a great time for a super open question and a pause) or simply own it ‘I just hijacked that point without meaning to. Please tell us more about it’. Accompany both of these with three internal words – Bite. Your. Tongue. If you hijack a conversation more than twice in a row it will really annoy the other/s so knowing when to keep schtum is everything.
Which brings me to…
- Pausing and Saying Less
One of the most impactful things you can do with words is use less of them and know when to stop entirely.
Succinctness leads to clarity and if people need more information from you, they can always ask. It can feel patronising if we over-explain when the other person already grabbed the point long ago. If you’re not sure – simply check in ‘Do you need any more detail from me?’ for example.
Pauses are incredibly beneficial for many reasons – mainly they give people a chance to absorb the information. They also help to emphasise key points, apportion accountability when needed and create engagement. Be aware that pausing always feels longer for the person doing it than the person on the receiving end, particularly if you aren’t used to using them.
Practise is everything.