Years ago, when I worked in the private sector, I was told by one of my team members that I was being disingenuous. Ten fateful words – “I would help you if I could, but I can’t” – took me three months to clean up. Here’s what I learned about workplace communication and why you should say what you mean, and mean what you say.
There is a time and a place for all sorts of language, but when it comes to conflict, it’s best to be direct and clear. Encouraging literal and direct workplace communication goes a long way towards this. According to the most recent CPP Global Human Capital Report, one in eight senior leaders say they are spending time in frequent or continual conflict.
Employees also stated that with support, 85 per cent of them have changed the way they approach conflict over the course of their working lives, becoming more proactive with workplace communication, and leading fewer personal affronts as a result.
Here are three ways we give and receive words and body language:
- Implied: Hinting at what you mean by using words that indicate but don’t explicitly state meaning. Often implied language is tacitly understood.
- Inferred: The way a person receives information with their view of the world attached to it. Often one might guess at the meaning because it isn’t clear.
- Literal: A way of communicating information that is direct, factual and not exaggerated. Literal workplace communication is generally hard to misinterpret.
It takes emotional insight and character to be able to stand strong and speak directly, especially with compassion and empathy. The internal capacity refers to emotional aptitude, particularly when faced with or preparing for conflict. Just as importantly, the external capability relates more so to skill sets and physical dimensions – how someone acts and their use of communication tools, rather than who they are and how they feel.
Here are the main external and internal factors you’ll encounter throughout the workday:
- Environmental factors: ensuring the right time and place is appropriate
- Reading signals: using sensory acuity, and body and voice cues
- Language skills: speaking clearly and using appropriate words for the situation
- Intention: stating your intention clearly and being transparent
- Self-belief: working on the inner sense of belief and feeling confident
- Courage: to speak your truth and kindly
Noticing the subtle differences in language during workplace communication is crucial. When dealing with conflict, the human resources advisor is often the third party, and being in this slightly removed position can give insights the other parties aren’t aware of in the moment.
It is the responsibility of all leaders and human resources professionals in the workplace to give all employees an opportunity to say what they mean. Increasingly, our workplace experiences are those of ‘smoothing over’, or avoiding issues, which only lead to added friction. Take the necessary steps to support genuine workplace communication. The cost of not doing anything is more than two hours of lost productivity per employee, per week, not to mention emotional unrest.
What can you do? Use the references, the model of communication and start noticing where others are implying or inferring. Get literal, be direct and help everyone say what they mean.