How to say what really matters? By listening!

Common language is not about words

Apart from all the things we say in daily life – things without any real meaning but which serve a social purpose, such as please, thanks, you’re welcome – there are lots of more things to say if your team should be able to accomplish anything.

For that purpose many team building programs try to give the team members a common language – for instance in the shape of corporate values and their deduction, or a vocabulary from one or more project management methodologies. Even though such a common language at times has a real meaning it often becomes a short lived gig. After a while, it has been forgotten and you and your colleagues are back to where they where before, talking like you always did.

Why does this happen? Because of the lack of contents. You may say a handful of positive words every day for a few days and think of it as a great thing – but gradually you get tired of it. It becomes a reduced form of New-speak (from the novel “1984”), the language that could only express positive thoughts (so that people could not express any unhappiness with the current state, and hence, not start a revolution). Being restrained from expressing yourself in your own way makes your words less rich and therefore less valuable. You feel degraded.

Language without contents

The prevalent idea of positive thinking (and speaking) is in the same league: if you cannot tell about problems, you cannot tell what really matters. In the end the idea will kill itself, just like the corporate values and the methodology vocabulary, at least on an everyday basis. The positive speaking will be something to be used on special occasions where nothing important needs to be said, like at receptions and department meetings.

You can easily see what is wrong with it by watching this video. It does express a kind of world lingo and at first it is quite entertaining and makes people smile. But for how long? Maybe you would like to test yourself? For how long do you consider the positive and meaningless language of the video to be better than a discussion about some real world problems that need to be addressed?

Purpose of the language

When a dialogue friendly environment should be established, an environment that can support real progression and problem solving, support development and production, it is much better with a rather different approach: instead of talking in a positive “least common denominator” language, try talk as yourself and expect the same from people around you – and then start listening to what is really being said. Not the words being used or the topics being touched, but one level behind all that.

Try to understand what is the reason for what is being said. If someone said a taboo word – why did they do it? Maybe there really is a problem with the toilet? Or maybe nobody seemed to listen to them when they tried the positive babble and therefore they now tried something else?

If you start paying attention to the meanings expressed rather than the words used, and if people around you find that they can safely do the same – if you all stop focusing on individual words and look for meanings – then you have indeed established a common language that will prove useful for collaboration.

Start with listening! “You have only one mouth but two ears”, as successful telemarketing people quickly learn. So you should listen twice as much as you speak. And try to get the meaning rather than the words. Then it will work. It is that simple!


The comic strip was found at the Chiradox blog.

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