Mind your language

I watch far too much television, but it does allow me to follow trends in language. For example, ‘We need to talk’ seems to appear every night in shows set in this century or in any other for that matter. I’m sure scriptwriters have it as a permanent ‘paste’.

Sport allows commentators to tell those on the field what they ‘need’, ‘should’ or ‘must’ do. Indeed, most commentary consists of telling someone to do the bleeding obvious (‘He needs to make some runs’, ‘He must kick this goal’, ‘She should work on her backhand’). And they get paid real money for saying this. Go figure.

In the world of business, people ‘must’ be more assertive, more definite, more decisive, more confident. So, what’s the problem? Well, quite simply, it leads to more interpersonal conflict at work.

Compromise and conciliation have been drowned in a tsunami of forceful, absolute and domineering communications.

Unfortunately, people who use this kind of language have no understanding of the effect it has on others and, even more sadly, have no other way of expressing themselves.

I had a dust up once with a colleague over precisely this point. I was sick of being told what I had to do, must do and should do. When I pointed out that I felt as though she treated me as if I were a child and I resented it deeply, she looked mystified.

“I don’t know what you mean’, she said.

‘When you tell me I have to do something, or that I must do something. It feels like you’re ordering me around’, I replied.

Blank incomprehension.

‘What am I supposed to say then?’

‘I’d appreciate it if… It might be worth thinking about… A useful approach I’ve found is… Are there other things that could be considered…’ My list went on and on.

More blank incomprehension.

I tried to explain further but really got nowhere. She was so used to using the imperative that she didn’t know any other way to speak. To her, all of my suggestions were exactly the same as the words she used. I was being ridiculously petty.

I often come across the same issue when dealing with workplace conflict. One party ‘issues orders’; the other puts up with it until one day they explode.

I know this is unfashionable in our current Age of Certainty, but I’d like to issue a plea for a little more tentativeness, a fraction more seeking cooperation rather than issuing orders, and a smidge more humility and a lot less bossiness. Maybe then we could communicate a lot more respectfully, and greatly reduce the amount of interpersonal conflict at work.

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