We start our sentences with qualifications (“I may be wrong, but ...” or “You may disagree, but ...”) and end our statements with questions (“Right?” “Yes?” “Okay?”). If we’re so unsure of what we’re about to say, why should anyone else listen? People often use a lot of unnecessary words like “whatever,” “it’s like,” or “I mean,” and that takes away from the strength of the message. This ineffective manner of expression is far too prevalent.
There are times when we do feel genuinely tentative, but this kind of waffling is indicative not of the uncertainty of our words but of the fear of being judged negatively. No one can tell what it is we know for sure and what we don’t. Sentences starting with “Isn’t it true that ...” or “You must agree with ...” are often strong opinions or accepted facts, but they are misleading when couched in this tentative form. “Could you have this done by Thursday?” may be a genuine question, but it is often a demand disguised as a request, the more honest statement would be: “I need this by Thursday. If it’s a problem, please let me know.”
Responding with slippery statements such as “Great” or “Interesting” does not let the person know what we really think. Ambiguous or insubstantial responses are not helpful. Only specific revelations about what we liked and disliked and the reasons why will allow people to improve performance.
One of the biggest difficulties most of us have is clearly saying, “No,” “I won’t,” “I can’t,” “It won’t work,” “I disagree,” etc. Instead, we say “Not now, maybe later,” “I’d love to but …” or “I wish I could.” This, of course, makes people believe that you will do what they ask next time; and so, the game continues until either they give up in disgust or you do it out of guilt.
This sort of dodging comes from our fear of speaking honestly. Newcomers to a group or anyone outside the dominant culture will often use tentative language until they feel accepted. If we’re unclear, then we can’t be pinned down to an opinion or decision. If we’re uncommitted in our language, then we can’t be blamed if anything goes wrong. Communication is wat-ered down to ineffectual levels.
When people protect themselves by not speaking out, not asking important questions, not making suggestions, or not disagreeing when necessary, they rob their organizations, families and relationships of a valuable resource — their minds. To people of older generations, having been raised to use “courtesy language” and never disagree, speaking directly feels like confrontation and is uncomfortable.
So, for people to become communication risk takers, the group or organization must recognize and value forthright comments, even when the advice does not turn out as well as expected. If only positive results are allowed, then nothing new, original or creative will be attempted.
Some organizations value harmony and agreement at any cost. If going along with the boss or the prevalent opinion is rewarded, then no one will take a chance on expressing a contrary opinion or suggest a different way of dealing with an issue. Soliciting different points of view and insisting on straightforward, direct communication are essential to success when working with others. It encourages productive communication between peers, friends and family members. The most fruitful conversations are those that include a variety of divergent opinions. It may feel good to have everyone in agreement, but nothing new will be learned.
Language is a power tool. Learning to use it is one of our most important life skills. The way we express ourselves tells others not only how confident we feel about what we are saying, but how acceptable we believe our message will be to others. Communication is indeed a two-way street. It expresses both who we are and the culture that can accept us as we are.
— Natasha Josefowitz taught the first course in the U.S. on women in management and is the author of 19 books. She lives at White Sands La Jolla.