I'm Disappointed... - Kay-Lambert Associates Limited

Kay-Lambert Associates Limited

Training, Coaching & Consultancy for Growth

I’m Disappointed…

The language we use often communicates things that are far from our conscious intention. We can often be surprised by the response we get, and left wondering how people could possibly interpret our innocent and well-intentioned remark as anything other.

I was coaching a senior leader recently who had decided that as part of his development he would like to carry out a 360 degree feedback survey. I designed a set of questions with him which explored some of the critical areas he was most interested in.

One question we asked was:

In terms of his leadership and interactions with others what would you like to see him do less of?

My client was surprised by a number of comments he received such as:

Using negative language (e.g. start sentences with “I’m disappointed…”)

Using patronizing language (parent – child) when communicating, e.g. “I am disappointed”.

DisappointmentIt got me thinking about why some people would interpret “I’m disappointed” as patronising, where others would see it as a straightforward statement of feeling.

“I’m disappointed” could be read as a partial statement with vital blanks missing. It could go in a number of directions: “I’m disappointed in you”, “I’m disappointed by the situation”, I’m disappointed in myself”, etc. Simply stating “I’m disappointed” can leave us guessing where this is going and that uncertainty or ambiguity can create tension.

I asked my client to identify one instance that his respondents had referred to and then explain what he was intending to communicate in that situation. After some analysis it became clear that he wanted people to realise he was upset and embarrassed and a little angry that something which had been promised had not been delivered. He was trying to say, “it’s not good enough”. But instead of say this, or using the words ‘angry’, ‘upset’ or ‘embarrassed’ he chose what he considered to be a kinder, softer way of expressing himself. His overriding concern was to keep the peace.

As it turned out, it had the opposite effect. People felt patronised & belittled. Paternalistic management can make us feel that way.

The added complication was that the criticisms were most strongly expressed by the Scandinavian members of the team. This highlights another potential problem with language and the way we use it when communicating across cultures. But the solutionSIGNPOST to both problems is probably the same. Maybe we just have to explain ourselves better, signpost what we’re saying, and do appropriate follow-up. I sum this up with the following statement:

It’s not mean to say what you mean and then check that what you meant to say has been understood as you meant it.

The accusation of paternalism was probably a fair one in the instance described paternalisticabove. My client’s main concern was to protect, care for and help his team, even though he was dissatisfied with their delivery. When asked “would you use the same language (“I’m disappointed”) if you were talking to your line manager or a senior leader?” he reluctantly admitted he would not. This underlying paternalism led him, inadvertently, to use language that emphasised it.

We do get it wrong sometimes, especially when we are attempting to communicate one message to many people at the same time. The things I have learned from this example are:

  1. Don’t punish yourself for getting it wrong: learn from it

  2. Remember that your underlying beliefs, attitudes, values and intentions will largely dictate the language you use to express them
  3. Don’t wait to discover at a later date that you have caused offence. Check in with people at the time.
  4. Signpost your intentions clearly: make your objective clear
  5. Bear in mind that different cultures have different levels of tolerance for directness. Learn about these tolerances and seek to modify your communication to achieve your objective.

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