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If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Words You Choose, The Beliefs You Communicate

Language shapes organizations, families, societies – it shapes every group, every institution, and every person. I think most of us know that it matters which words we choose and use in our attempts to motivate, guide, and inform our children. We know that teachers can greatly influence their students with their attitude and style, which is most prominently shown in the language they use when addressing their students. Yet often we use words and phrases that are just short of the opposite from what we are aiming to achieve whether it be in the home, the office, or at school: they are perceived as demotivating, confusing, negative, discouraging, hesitant.  We talk about what we don’t want to see rather than what we do want to see. We focus on old incidents thereby steering away from our main point. We focus on problems and blame rather than causes and solutions. We go on and on, losing attention and influence every second we continue on this nagging path. And, as you would want it to be, people listen to the language you use, to the themes you focus on, and to the words you choose. People around you interpret your words and your themes and act upon those interpretations, whether they do it consciously or not. Taking it even a step further, you can shape people’s beliefs (and your own) with your words and your themes.

I’m sad to say that what happens in organizations is often not that much different from what happens in families and in private life. There is a fair amount of negative, nagging, and numbing communication going around in organizations. Ineffective communication abound in the business arena, from silence, vague or mixed messages, hearing things "after the fact," distorted information, to receiving information overload. In the business setting, knowing what and how much to communicate, how to communicate it, to whom to communicate, when to communicate, and through what language comes only through a well thought out plan – the communication plan that defines and controls (or at least that’s the intention) the messages a company conveys to its customers, employees, stockholders, and to the general public. A communication plan should include objectives, strategies to achieve those objectives, clarity on who will deliver the messages and by what means, as well as the anticipated outcome of the efforts and how the results will be measured and evaluated. But it shouldn’t stop there, because with the best communication plan in the world, if front-line employees, leaders, and anyone and everyone in your organization is not fully aware and mindful of their spoken language and it’s effects, much of your influence is out of control. The spoken and written language is a big part of your organizational culture, just as it is a big part for societies and countries. For most politicians and for some business people, the words they speak are carefully crafted, but for many of us, in leading and in following positions, we do not consciously consider the words we use and the effects they will likely have on others. And that is because we don’t choose the words that we use. And we often don’t seem to understand how much our words and phrases are a result of the very beliefs and thinking patterns that they also help shape.

In my 22 year career as a business and leadership coach, I have used the language of my clients as one of the entry points to their belief system and thinking patterns. I have used their language to help them understand how they define themselves, others, and their relationships by the language they utter. We have used language as one of the available tools to increase their effectiveness. I feed back to them from our very first meeting what I hear them say and what strikes me in their use of words. We discuss the beliefs underlying their choice of words as well as the possible effects of their words on themselves (and not just in the case of self-descriptions) and on others. One of my clients 20 years ago spoke in terms of “I think I am rather well-liked, in general,….” and “They say I’m kind of good at technology, I guess.” The hesitance in this person’s language could have different causes, such as truly doubting his own abilities and strengths or the belief that he shouldn’t be bragging about himself. There are other possible dynamics at play, but the main point is that this client had started to believe his own words. He was reinforcing his underlying beliefs by building a vocab of hesitance and underestimation. Another example is war-language. I remain to be stunned by the many clients who use phrases such as “We’ll make sure we’ll get those bastards” (talking about a different department), or “The best way to get somewhere is to fight your way to the top in this company” – you get the picture, you’ve heard it yourself I’m sure. Many clients will tell me that it’s “just the way we talk about things here – don’t worry too much about that”, but it’s much more than that, with beliefs, assumptions, expectations, and thinking patterns to be discovered and influenced. Equally important, of course, I point it out when clients use positive, confident language or language that is inclusive and geared towards win-win situations.

Communication experts, from Thomas Gordon with his active listening and I-messages, to Paul Watzlawick with his axioms that you cannot not communicate and that communication is always content plus relationship, to Bert Decker, with his belief that you have to be believed to be heard, there has been much attention given to communication: How to communicate when discussions turn heated, how to deliver a perfectly informative and interesting speech, how to adjust your style of communication to different audiences, how to persuade a potential customer, or how to keep a longwinded colleague in line so as not to drag on the meeting once again. These are important aspects of communication, no denying that. I urge you, however, to start with the obvious. I urge you to look and listen to your daily comments, before and after the official meeting. I urge you to look and listen to remarks you make in the hallway or at lunchtime. I urge you to look and listen to your tone of voice, to the strength with which you declare something, to the words that you choose, and to the effects they might have on others. Are you convincing, are you passionate, are you respectful, are you clear, are you positive in what you say and how you say it? Are you aware of the beliefs that underlie your language? Are you aware of the beliefs that you are expressing with the language that you choose?

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