CommsMasters Blog

What Are Words Worth?

By David Mason >>

WordsIt's important to acknowledge that in any debate, both sides believe that they're right. And we, as human beings, are hard-wired to gravitate towards the things that reinforce our beliefs or existing knowledge, rather than refute them.

Take the recent case of the dispute at the Grangemouth petrochemical plant. Leaving the politics aside, the language that was (reported as) being used added fuel to an already inflamed debate, one in which both sides believed their perspective was the 'right' one. Workers, on the one hand, allegedly described one INEOS director as being "evil", while David Cameron described the plant's former Unite convener as a "rogue" operator.

Equally, in the workplace, the impact of language is an often overlooked – and yet critical – area of leadership communication. In the examples quoted above, words have been treated as if they're throw-away commodities. The truth is they are quite the opposite, and should be chosen with care and precision.

Ignoring the impact language can have, particularly in situations like the one at Grangemouth, results in deepening resistance and often leads to even greater conflict. The language used in this recent dispute also brings to mind that used by both sides during the miners' strike of the '80s, when Arthur Scargill said that the government was out to "destroy" the coal industry – to which Margaret Thatcher replied that the rule of law must prevail over the rule of the "mob".

All of these words – evil, rogue, destroy, mob – are potentially contentious and divisive, reminding us that language is an essential (though often unrecognised) element of communication for leaders to consider. And while the actual message may take a short time to share, the impact of the language can continue long afterwards.

Leaders who use words without being aware of the underlying message they convey can create thoughts, feelings and behaviours in others that did not previously exist.

In the workplace, to ensure that you don't inadvertently cause the type of unfavourable reactions that the Grangemouth and miners' disputes attracted – and indeed to encourage mature and reasonable responses – follow these three top tips:

  1. Notice what you are thinking and feeling before you begin a potentially sensitive conversation, presentation or briefing. Once you are aware of your thoughts and feelings you can either choose language that expresses them in an appropriate way, or you can reframe what you are thinking.

  2. When selecting the words you will use to give a sensitive message, select those that are aligned with the intensity of any emotions that people are likely to feel, without adding to it. If you know that people are angry about a decision, suggesting they are frustrated will probably make the situation worse because you will be seen as down-playing the reality of what is happening.

  3. Take responsibility for the message by using the first person rather than referring to third parties – named or unnamed. "I think" / "I feel" / "My view is..." are examples of impactful language and are likely to earn you the respect of those with whom you are engaging.

What examples of the wrong choice of language have you heard – and what was the impact? Leave us a reply below or tweet us @CommsMasters.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

fear in the workplace

Subscribe to our blog