Do Words Really Matter?

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How much do the words you choose to use really matter? On the surface this may seem like a silly question. Yet the important role of language or the specific words we use is often overlooked or downplayed.  Part of the reason for this is the frequently misquoted communications study done by Professor Albert Mehrabian.  Here is the overly-simplistic, common (mis)interpretation:

  • 7% of meaning is in the words that are spoken.
  • 38% of meaning is in voice (the way that the words are said).
  • 55% of the meaning is based on body language

Applied literally, this would suggest that 93% of communication is based on the non-verbal elements of communication which, if you stop to think about it, is actually absurd.

According to Mehrabian himself, he did not intend the statistic to be used or applied freely to all communications and meaning.  This formula applies only to determining the intent of communication of feelings and attitudes. More specifically it applies when the words, voice and facial expression are not consistent.  In the study, when words, voice and facial expression were not congruent, the intent of the speaker was derived from voice or facial features 93% of the time and from words 7% of the time.

One of the values of the Mehrabian study, from my perspective is, pointing out the importance of congruency in communication. If you want your words to be heard, you must make sure your body language and voice are congruent with the words you are saying. Then, if you want your communication to be powerful, you must choose your words wisely. Here are some tips for doing that:

Choose words that create a vivid image in the mind of the listener

Compare these two descriptions:

“Without a clear vision for your business, it is very difficult to move forward”

“Not having a clear vision for your business is like driving in thick, dense fog on a winding mountain road. You have your foot on the brake most of the time, you are hesitant to take action, and it’s not a lot of fun.”

Which of these creates a more vivid image in your mind and is more compelling?

Avoid words that put the listener on the defensive:

If you want to be an even more powerful communicator you will want to eliminate (or greatly reduce the use of) the word “why”. “Why?” you may ask. Because it is a word that arouses a defensive posture.

When you begin a question with “why” it generally goes like this. “Why did you…” Here is what the other person hears – regardless of your tone of voice or what comes next.

“Why in the world did you say, do, or think that?”

They believe you are being judgmental whether that was your intention or not. Here are some alternative ways to ask the question:

  • “Will you help me understand your thought process regarding…?”
  • “Help me understand what was going on that led you to take those actions.”

“You” is one of those words that can put a listener on the defensive, especially if it is followed by “always”, “never” or “are wrong”. Next time you believe an employee or colleague is wrong about something instead of saying, “You are wrong.” try saying:

      “I’m not sure that is accurate.”

The person will be much more likely to hear and consider your point of view.

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Choose words that build up rather than tear down:

“Yes And” is one of the tenants of Improv comedy. Here’s how it works. Anytime a player says something during a scene, the player that responds next builds on what was just said. The second player says (either out loud or in their head), “yes and…” building on what the first player said.

For example, if the first player said, “What a lovely place for a picnic.” the second player might say, “Yes and I bet I can catch a frog for our lunch in that beautiful pond.” For the second player to respond with something like, “No, I think this would be an awful place for a picnic.” is essentially throwing cold water on the first player’s idea.

After taking an Improv class, I became aware of how frequently I was throwing cold water on the ideas of my team, colleagues and clients. I now intentionally use the “Yes And” principle when someone tells me their idea, looking at how to build on and improve the idea rather than poking holes in the idea and deflating the person in the process

Try it next time on one of your team members, a colleague, your child or your spouse tells you an idea.

You can take this one step further. When you are giving feedback or making recommendations for improvement try using “even better” or “even more”. For example,

  • “You did a great job on that presentation and you could add even more impact by…” 
  • “We had a great meeting today and next week we can make it even better by…”

And with that in mind, I hope you will try these tips so you can be even more effective in communicating your message and gaining the cooperation of your employees, colleagues and kids.

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