Watch your words: How to master the language of work

Jul 13, 2022

4 mins

Watch your words: How to master the language of work

It was the American author Betty Eadie who said that if we understood the awesome power of our words, we would prefer silence.

And indeed, language holds tremendous sway: it can mend or injure, build up or tear down, empower or disempower. But if silence is golden, it’s not always a commodity we can afford in our working lives, where words not only decide our relationships with colleagues but often the trajectory of our careers.

We spoke to Brendan Cunningham, Industrial Relations Practitioner and Workplace Mediator, about how to best walk the communication tightrope of the modern office.

“This meeting could have been an email”

Imagine you’ve come out of a two-hour ‘emergency’ meeting with no clearer idea of how to solve the issue at hand. We all know the frustration, as well as the impulse to ask — scream — to your bosses whether they’re familiar with the concept of electronic mail. However, Cunningham recommends an alternative phrasing, “Given your schedule and workload, would it be worth looking into dealing with the subject matter of the meeting we just had through email next time?” What you’re looking for is a balance between assertiveness and professionalism, Cunningham says, and if it fails, a longer-term strategy might pay off: “Ask them to take some time to think of the wider benefits of such an approach.”

“You’re not pulling your weight”

We’ve all had that one colleague who just flies under the radar and doesn’t contribute much to group projects – yet their name is still there on the brief, by some unfortunate miracle. Needless to say, calling them a team player can test your patience. But take a deep breath and take Cunningham’s advice to (calmly) “explain how their lack of effort is affecting your work and the project.”

He suggests being proactive when having this conversation and making sure that you propose solutions as well – without offering to do their work, obviously. This may take a little extra effort on your part, so take the time in advance to note specific details and examples, and provide pragmatic solutions.

“That idea will never work”

You’re in a meeting trying to strategize the next stages of your project, and one eager team member keeps serving up the most far-fetched proposals. Cunningham admits the difficulty in shutting down unrealistic ideas without coming off as ungracious.

Before waving aside their suggestion or saying something you might regret, it might be better to “take a little time before responding, and be seen listening.” You could phrase your uncertainty in a gentler way: “that’s an interesting idea, how do you see that playing out?” Cunningham explains that “this way you put the onus back on your colleague to explain in more detail their idea. Hopefully, as they do, they will see the holes in the idea themselves, or if not, you can ask probing-type questions until they realize that maybe the idea isn’t as good as they originally thought!”

“How do you not understand what I am saying?”

The day is off to a bad start: you got the wrong coffee order and your laptop wasn’t charged for the morning presentation. You’re already feeling irked when a colleague asks, for the fourth time, to repeat what you’ve asked them to do.

Take a breath. Cunningham suggests using — in a calm and collected manner — a phrase like, “maybe you didn’t catch what I said …” He adds that, “if this doesn’t work, you may have to spend a little extra time explaining what you’re trying to say, and then say it again.” Patience is key. Cunningham also says that the root problem may in fact not be about understanding, but listening. The persistent request to have someone repeat their instructions may be coming from someone who’s frustrated because they feel like they are rarely being heard themselves.

He suggests that “effective listening means being attentive; use good open body language, eye contact, and nodding. Reflect back on what the person is saying to you by paraphrasing, explore by asking open-ended questions to get more information, and closed questions for yes-or-no answers.”

“Why did you say that was your idea when it was mine?”

At the very top of the list of workplace frustrations are colleagues hijacking your brilliant ideas and presenting them as their own. It’s normal that you would want to call the culprit out in front of everyone. But Cunningham suggests keeping a cool head and suppressing your emotions – for the benefit of your professional reputation. You should take some time to examine why this person might have said your ideas are actually theirs.

Ask yourself, “did they actually take the credit? Was it done on purpose?” Once you’ve considered the potential reasons, Cunningham says that you can approach it by saying, “wasn’t that the idea I raised with you yesterday?” He adds that this is a safe option “because the question can be asked on a one-to-one basis with the colleague or in a meeting if that’s where the credit for the idea was taken.”

By reacting with our emotions, we typically say things we later regret. As Cunningham points out, “we need to instead take some time to evaluate certain situations and to understand what exactly is going on.” Even if it’s hard not to react immediately, keeping a respectful rapport with colleagues is imperative.

That said, if you’re often feeling frustrated and the need to lash out, then you should probably consider a more thorough evaluation of your work environment: Where is the true origin of the issue? Is it poor leadership? If so, do you have something to do with it? Other usual suspects include insufficient project direction and feedback from colleagues or managers — or even a “lack of a good dignity and respect policy paired with ongoing communication,” Cunningham says.

Indeed, words may be free but can come at a great cost. In our professional lives, only by mastering our tongues can we manage that balancing act between correcting and offending, or encouraging and condescending. So, in other words, before you say anything, take a step back and choose carefully.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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