Language as a lens into behaviour
Linguists analyse how certain speech patterns correspond to particular behaviours, including how language can impact people’s buying decisions or influence their social media use.
In business and in life, perception is everything and our perception is based on language; what is said and what we hear. When it comes to how we behave, how we respond, the boldness of our actions, it is driven by our perception of the situation. It’s important to know that there is also a definite correlation between our perception and our performance; the bolder we feel, often the greater our performance.
The impact of language is demonstrated by tweaking some of the smallest words we use. For example, if you ask someone how they are, do they answer that they are ‘not bad’ (double negative), or ‘very well’ (double positive). The two phrases might mean the same thing but the emotional response elicited -in both parties- by the different language used is massive.
Your inner monologue
The language you use internally, the way you tell yourself something will be, manifests powerfully in how you approach situations in the real world. How you create your perception of a situation has a massive impact on how you show up, how you behave, what you say and how you say it.
An example is difficult meetings – we all have them- but if you tell yourself that it is going to be difficult before the meeting even starts then it completely changes your focus and the language you use. You take up more defensive positions, you act differently and the chance of a positive outcome is almost 100% less likely.
What if you changed the description of the meeting in your head from ‘difficult’ to ‘a challenge’ or a ‘realignment meeting’ or even better a ‘growth meeting’. That change in language suggests a totally different set of possibilities for the meeting.
The power of polite language
How many times have you had a conversation that has become an argument that has spiralled out of control very quickly because people were speaking in haste and not taking the time to consider the impact of their words? Take a second, pause before speaking and you can change the direction of the conversation quickly to get it back on track.
Choosing your words carefully is important, but sticking to your guns and being clear on your point is just as important. Often you need to get past the fact that it might be difficult to say or hear and make sure that you are able to make a point, without any emotion attached to it and be sure it was heard loud and clear by the subject.
A fundamental change since we have adopted video meetings is now you don’t see people’s bodies as much, which means it is harder to pick up on those subtle hints and clues that a person’s body language can give. The key to body language is that it is largely unconscious; you can take time to pick your words but body language happens more naturally.
Communication starts with body language, then the words we use, then the way we deliver them.
So, even on a Zoom or Teams meeting, think about how your audience will perceive your engagement or interest in a meeting. Sit up, or stand up, lean in, be visible.
Never say can’t or unfortunately
Two words, you should never use, as a leader, ‘can’t’, and ‘unfortunately’, which is the ultimate sentence killer; no-one ever reads past, unfortunately in an email. ‘Thanks for your recent proposal but unfortunately…’no, we didn’t get it, move on. These words are perceived in a certain way; they are very disempowering and negative. Try to substitute them.
A big issue in accountancy- and probably across professional services- is the concept of scope creep, where you basically do extra stuff for your clients, but you don’t bill them for it. Scope creep starts when a client rings you and asks if you can deliver a new course on a given day, often the conversation starts ‘could you just…’.
Whether or not you are able to accommodate this new request, the biggest difference in the language you use in your response when you agree to this additional work, is whether you say it will come with additional budget or not. If you are clear that doing ‘X’ will add ‘Y’ to the fee, then that prevents the need for an uncomfortable conversation down the line, because your client thought the work was included and it wasn’t.
We get told by a lot of clients that they value our ability to talk about something that’s fairly complex in a way makes it a lot simpler to understand. As you can appreciate, the tax laws and implications for many businesses can be tricky to navigate. One thing we don’t do is use industry jargon, and we certainly don’t try to demonstrate our ability or knowledge of a subject by baffling a client with abbreviations.
The language of Performance
Performance is a word that is used a lot throughout business and it carries a huge amount of power because if you can clarify, through the use of language, what performance means to you, and what improving performance would mean to your business then by strengthening every aspect of it, the impact could be massive.
There are three dictionary definitions; The activity of presenting a plea concert or other form of entertainment to entertain an audience, the action or process of performing a task or function, within the context of business related to your business and your role and finally when specifically used for define business performance, it is your progress against goals, finances and customer care.
If your perception of performance is just related to business goals, then that will be the focus, but the language used to define it is much more powerful than that. Think about how you show up as a business leader; what sort of performance do you give – are you entertaining and clear? When performing a task do you create the optimal conditions for success?
The pen is mightier than the sword
The adage created by English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton, indicated that the written word is more effective than violence as a tool for communicating a point. I read an article recently about a person that came back from holiday to about 14,000 emails. My first thought was why this bottle neck was allowed to happen but interestingly the guy’s approach to clearing his inbox was to type as few words as possible in his responses.
By cutting out all the pleasantries, his emails were a simple ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘okay’ and ‘get it done’. If it was more complex than a binary yes or no, he would write ‘this sounds like a conversation’. And if he got a call subsequently, then he would deal with it and if he didn’t get a call then obviously it wasn’t important and he cleared his inbox.
But the feedback he got, mainly from his team was along the lines of what have we done wrong, why are you being so short with us? We all agonise and rightly so about how an email will sound to the recipient. I have taken to responding to WhatsApps via voice message. When they are read out by Siri in a monotone, emotionless voice with different punctuation it’s amazing how it changes the message and how people perceive the message.
Words are incredibly powerful. People perceive us in a certain way based on our language. Our products and services are differentiated based on our language, even our brand is language. There are opportunities to strengthen the language we use everywhere and as entrepreneurs; if we can master the use of language in different situations it is going to give us a great advantage.