To communicate well, words need to be given their full value. But I’ve noticed how easily we can all develop a habit of destroying that value, using words in ways that grate on our listeners’ ears. Like hearing an out-of-tune piano, once upon a time there was music there, but now the harmony is lost because the words ring hollow.
…To be honest…
…To be fair…
I find this more noticeable in business conversations than presentations: many people have a habit of repeating the same ‘filler’ words without any thought to their meaning. Maybe it’s because they can’t bear the idea of a nano-second of silence.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of those words or phrases, of course – as long as you use them to mean what they say. But have you ever said ‘okay’ as someone is talking to you, when what you really meant was: “I’m biding my time until I can think of a way to jump in and beat down your argument, which from where I’m sitting is definitely NOT okay…”?
Presenters sometimes use ‘okay’ or ‘right’, or more popularly these days, 'So!' as a way of beginning the whole presentation – possibly adding another ‘So!’ for every new paragraph thereafter. It’s a bit like constantly clearing your throat: it clutters up your message with an irritating – and unnecessary – noise. So it undermines your impact. More than you may realise.
The same is true for ‘obviously’. Ever used that word about something that’s not obvious at all to the other person? Someone who might even feel insulted by your implication: that any fool must be able to see what, from your point of view, is staring them in the face? 'My obvious is not your obvious' is so true, and worth remembering.
And what about beginning a statement with ‘to be honest’ – when in fact you have no reason to suggest that you would be anything else?
De-cluttering your conversation – giving words their full value – is not just about lending melodiousness to what you say so that it’s more pleasant to listen to. It’s also about choosing words that create harmony in your business relationships.
Take the word ‘but’. In my experience, that’s the word that most often sabotages rapport, undermines the other person, and even – at worst – stirs up discord. From my own perspective it can mean, just occasionally, that a participant will turn up on one of my training courses and meet everything I suggest with a ‘but’:
“But I wouldn’t normally do it that way.”
“But that wouldn’t work.”
“But you don’t understand enough about my job to be able to say that.”
That word ‘but’ is like a vuvuzela sounded right in the face. Everything I’m suggesting, in a spirit of aiming to help, is being blasted straight back at me. I usually take this kind of response as my cue to back off, at least for a while, and trust that the process of the course and the experience of other participants will speak for itself and encourage the ‘butter’ to… well, melt a little. (Which usually works, I’m glad to report.)
Even if ‘but’ is framed alongside a positive, it puts up an almighty barrier. ‘Yes, but…’ is a negative masquerading as a positive. And it still means ‘no’! The person you’re speaking to momentarily hears your acceptance – only to get that vuvuzela blast right in the face:
“I hear what you say, but let me just remind you of my point of view…”
“You’re right, you met that one deadline, but you’ve missed every other one this year…”
“I’m sorry you feel I was unfair, but I think you’ll find that in fact, I treat everyone equally.”
The initial agreement is more than cancelled out by the negative that follows – and it’s the negative that resonates as a result.
There are two alternatives that work a lot better. First, try replacing ‘but’ with ‘and’. It’ll make the rest of the sentence come out differently:
“I hear what you say, and I can see you have a strong point of view. Can I explain how things look from my side?”
“You’re right, you met that one deadline, and it would be great if you could meet your other deadlines just as efficiently.”
“I’m sorry you feel I was unfair, and I’ll try to make sure I treat everyone equally in future.”
‘And’ takes the music onwards, like a new, more uplifting key. It doesn’t mean you have to acquiesce completely to the other person without ever expressing an opposing viewpoint. ‘But’ is a completely useful and acceptable word in some contexts.
Where there’s discord, however, find things with which you both agree, even if they’re minimal. Pounce on them with enthusiasm, and it’s a lot more likely you’ll be able to move the conversation forward. My colleague Tim Stockil calls this ‘putting the problem on the wall’. Metaphorically, and even physically, place yourself alongside the other person and talk about the issue as if it’s on the wall in front of you both, rather than an obstacle between you. It suggests you’re partners, not adversaries, for whom arriving at a ‘win-win’ resolution is a joint responsibility.
A second, more powerful alternative to saying the word ‘but’ is the full stop – placed even before that word ‘and’. Taking a pause allows you to make sure that a point of agreement has truly landed.
“I hear what you say.” (Stop! Wait to see how that lands!)
“You’re right, you did meet that deadline.” (Stop! Wait to see how that lands!)
“I’m sorry you feel I was unfair.” (Stop! Wait to see how that lands!)
If you still get an adversarial response, you may need to repeat the same point, maybe in different ways. The object is to establish agreement, however small.
‘But’ is a bum note, after which everything comes out as discord.
‘And’ creates harmony – and a melody you want to hear more of.
Once the other person starts tuning into that harmony, you have far more chance of taking the conversation on to somewhere you’re both content to be. Or to put it another way, you’re both a lot more likely to start singing from the same song sheet.