Language Matters

Language is probably the most powerful communication tool we have - and the one that most people use poorly. Whether it be emails that are too long (guilty) or using words that are not clearly defined or (shudder) using buzzwords that have little to no true meaning, language is something to which managers need to pay attention.

The hard part is that the exact same language can mean different things to different people. Which means you have to work at understanding how language impacts people and being nimble enough to communicate in a variety of ways.

Three phrases you should never use:

  • "ASAP" - Some people define it as an emergency where everything else gets dropped. Others see it as a non-time sensitive thing, so get to it when you can. Put a specific date and time on the request.

  • "Any questions?" - Seems harmless, but it isn't. For some people, particularly direct reports, this phrase is a trap. If they ask questions, they don't understand and are considered dumb. The tone employees hear is "I explained everything, and there should be no questions, but I'll verify". In order to give them permission to ask questions, say "what questions do you have for me?"

  • "How's ____ going?" - The answer is almost always going to be "fine". No one wants to say "actually, I am really behind and am afraid it is going to be late". We all say "fine" or "good" to avoid the conversation. If you've built up an incredibly psychologically safe group, this may work, but only in that case. Instead, ask specifics. "What have you done on ____ and what still needs to be done?" "Give me a status update - green, yellow, or red and why you gave it that rating." You'll get more accurate information and have a better chance of heading off any potential issues.

Pay attention to your language, specifically these three phrases to avoid. You'll be amazed at how much it matters.