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”.
“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 solution
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
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:
Don’t punish yourself for getting it wrong: learn from it
Remember that your underlying beliefs, attitudes, values and intentions will largely dictate the language you use to express them
Don’t wait to discover at a later date that you have caused offence. Check in with people at the time.
Signpost your intentions clearly: make your objective clear
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.