How we use language and how it influences others goes far beyond how flowery or clinical your choice of words sound to another person. Messages are also shaped by many other factors such as tone of voice (friendly, challenging, sarcastic, cold, etc. ) and who is interpreting these tones.
Body language also plays a significant role in how we communicate, sometimes without using language directly at all. For example, one culture might consider a person with steady eye contact to be engaged and sincere whilst another culture might consider the same behaviour to be aggressive or too intimate.
How we phrase our language has a major impact on how we get our message across. Many people, who perhaps have been on training courses such as enhancing interviewing techniques or developing effective negotiating styles, learn how to use open and closed questioning styles for maximum impact. However, attitude and choice of words and wording can have a huge impact on business culture.
In a recently published article, the Harvard Business Review highlights the importance of speech patterns and how negative language can be counterproductive for business. Word choices that include inhibitors like ‘I can’t’ or ‘That will never work’ set not only a negative tone, but also a negative outlook that can quickly become the organisation’s culture as well. This negativity can directly impact the organisation’s ability to develop new ideas or even simply move with the times if ideas are criticised, ignored or dismissed by negative feedback often enough.
The HBR article highlighted examples of organisations that turned around their organisational climate by turning around negative speech patterns and turning them into positives. Far from being idealistic, these changes became catalysts for organisational growth.
For example, changing an ‘I can’t’ into a ‘what if’ means that an idea or request is no longer directly closed down. Instead, it invites the speaker to consider another way of thinking about a challenge. It also gives the speaker a somewhat subtle push that a direct rejection of such an idea or request may not be acceptable to the organisation.
Finding more positive ways to avoid or remove negative speech patterns is often a matter of switching your communication style more implicitly as well. Using inclusive words and phrases often increase the chances of buy-in to an idea or request that was previously meeting resistance.
The global business consultancy organisation IDEO has highlighted the phrase ‘How might we …?’ as an excellent example. Breaking down this simple phrase illustrates the effectiveness of choosing words wisely. The word ‘how’ implies that something will happen, with the method yet to be discovered. The word ‘might’ not only implies that something could happen, it also gives permission to explore various ideas whilst simultaneously removing any feeling of embarrassment if the idea is not subsequently pursued. The word ‘we’ implies joint effort and ownership – and also an increased likelihood that an eventual decision will be supported by the group as a whole.
Keeping this in mind, it’s also a good idea to deliver a negative message in a way that highlights the positive, using this as an example of how to deal with a difficult situation more effectively. Start with something positive to say; then compare the difficulty with what has already been done well. End by giving another example of something positive, such as a positive goal or previously successful achievement.
Your attitude contributes to your choice of language. Avoiding negative speech patterns generally requires your perception of your challenge, your business and your organisation to be one where the glass is half full. Make sure your choice of language reflects this attitude as well.