When other people interpret our message, they are using a combination of our words, non-verbal cues, and tone of voice to figure it out.
And although body language and tone have the greatest impact on their interpretation, your word choice still matters. The repeated use of the wrong words or phrasing over and over will lead people to stop listening to you. That can then lead to you having to spend more time explaining what you really meant to say.
But if you are intentional with your language choice, you can have incredible influence and actually SAVE time in the long run. Here are three key tips for you to consider when choosing your words:
Take Ownership by Using Pro-Active Language
One of the biggest problems I see is the use of reactive or externally-focused language when there is a problem or issue. Reactive language is phrasing that puts blame on others. It does not express any ownership of the situation, and it’s unfortunately much more natural and comfortable when we are angry. It sounds like “I have to…” or “You made me…” or “Because of your…”
Here are two very simple examples:
“You made me fall.” or “I have to go to our department meeting.”
But do others have control over our actions? Nope.
Can others “make” us do things? Nope.
We have control over our reactions, whether we believe it or not. With each situation in life, we are making choices on how to respond, what to say and how to process (or not process) our emotions that arise. The sooner you are able to acknowledge your role in a situation, the easier it is to shift your language from reactive to pro-active.
ProActive language is phrased using “I” statements and terms that imply a personal stake in the situation. When people speak to us using pro-active phrasing, we are much more receptive and open to the conversation because we don’t feel attacked or blamed.
The best way to practice using pro-active language is to start by shifting your statements so that they start with “I choose to…” or “I want to…” or “I am…”, instead of the reactive phrasing above.
A more proactive way to look at the same statements from above are:
“I fell on the chair that you had moved because I didn’t see it.” Or
“I choose to go to the department meeting.”
“To ASSUME makes an ASS out of U and ME.”
I know it’s hard, but don’t assume you know the backstory, the reasoning or the logic another person is using in the situation. If you are having trouble seeing their side of the story, ask open-ended, clarifying questions to understand.
Approaching each conversation as a chance to learn more about another person’s interpretation (instead of assuming they are against you), creates a more neutral tone and phrasing in your language.
And if you are going to assume anything, assume positive intent from the other party. Exploring the positive possibilities will also contribute to a more effective outcome.
Avoid the Over-use of “Why”
I get it. You want to know why something happened so you can make sense of a project or someone’s behavior. We all do, honestly.
The problem with asking “Why” when someone isn’t expecting it is that the word “Why?” can put people in a defensive frame of mind. And when people feel like they have to defend themselves or their actions, they often shut down or go on the attack. Then the discussion you started to better understand… has now turned into an argument without your realizing it.
So try a few other phrases instead:
“I’m interested in how you came to make that choice?”
“What guided you to that decision?”
“Can you tell me more about how you got there?”
“What was your process in choosing that?”
BUT… what if you can’t remember this in the heat of the moment? What if all else fails? I get it, especially when emotions are high.
Luckily there is one no-fail tip that will help in every single situation: LISTEN.
Stop talking. Stop arguing. Just stop.
Listen as if you want to understand. Listen by telling yourself that you NEED to understand where the other person is coming from.
And don’t just listen to their words. Listen to what their body is telling you… what their eyes are telling you.
What are they really wanting to get through to you? What do they need you to know?
Because true, masterful communication is at its best when both parties are hoping for mutual understanding – not trying to prove right or wrong. And the more you can understand their perspective, the more willing and able they will be to understand yours.