360 – Diplomatic and Direct Language

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Hi! It’s Tim Simmons here with another edition of Business Skills 360. I’ve been listening to the current series on handling a crisis, and I just wanted to jump in with a couple of important points on the language we use in a crisis. We’ve heard some folks dealing with a pretty serious crisis: an accident at a factory. And maybe you’ve noticed how some of the people are quite careful about the words they use. Careful is important.

You see, a crisis is a sensitive situation. Emotions are running high and people are on edge. There is the potential for conflict if you do or say the wrong thing. At the same time, the clock is ticking and you may not have time to manage everyone’s feelings. For these reasons, you have a very fine balancing act between being diplomatic and being direct.

What do we mean by being “diplomatic?” Well, diplomatic language is polite and careful. We use it so people don’t feel offended or get upset. Let’s see how this works in practice. Imagine you need to tell your boss about a bad accident. Do you say “There’s been a bad accident?” You could say this, but it’s probably too direct. To cushion the blow, you could say something like “It seems that there’s been quite a bad accident.” How is this more diplomatic? Well, it starts with “It seems…” That’s an indirect way of introducing something. “Perhaps” and “maybe” are other common ways to do this. Or you can use “apparently,” like this: “Apparently there’s been quite a bad accident.”

Now, the other thing you heard there is “quite,” as in “quite a bad accident.” That’s a minimizing expression. It makes the situation sound not as bad as it really is. We do this when we say things like “this problem is rather urgent” and “we have a slight problem.” Just by adding words such as “quite,” “rather,” “slight,” “a little,” and “a bit,” we can be more diplomatic.

Okay, another way to be diplomatic is by using questions. Imagine you think someone made a lousy decision. You could say “You made a lousy decision.” But chances are that person is going to react negatively, so you should be diplomatic. In this case, you can use a question, like “Are we sure this is the right thing to do?” Or maybe you think someone is trying to decide on a course of action too quickly. You could say “Wouldn’t it be better to talk about this a bit more?” Questions, especially ones starting with “would” and “wouldn’t,” are more diplomatic than direct statements.

Okay, but do we want to be diplomatic all the time? Definitely not. Diplomatic language can be rather indirect. And for that reason, people might not understand just how serious we are. Sometimes we need to convey a sense of urgency or give very clear instructions. In these situations, we need to be direct.

Imagine you’re having a head-to-head with an employee after a big accident, and you don’t want him to talk to the media. You could be diplomatic and say “It might not be a good idea to talk to the media.” But that’s not strong enough. In this case, you should be direct and say, “Don’t talk to the media.” This is what we call an imperative, which is a sentence with no subject. We use them for commands, like “Fix the problem” or “Tell me what happened.” Imperatives are direct, not diplomatic, which is exactly what you need here.

Direct language is also essential when you’re giving instructions, which need to be clear, especially in a crisis. Imagine you want an employee to inspect some machinery, repair any problems, and then file a report. Do you start with “Maybe we should have a little look at that machinery”? Is that clear? That sounds like you’re thinking out loud. The person who hears that may or may not do it. In a crisis, that’s asking for trouble. You need to be clear and say “First, inspect the machinery. Then fix any problems you find and file a report.” No diplomatic language like “maybe” or “little.” The instructions are perfectly clear because they’re direct.

So, when should you be diplomatic and when should you be direct? Well, you really need to assess the situation and determine which is best. Diplomatic language can protect people’s feelings. It can also avoid conflict and build trust. Those can all be very important in a crisis, when everybody needs to be on board with a plan. On the other hand, direct language can show a sense of urgency and seriousness, and it can prevent confusion. Those are also important in a conflict, when things must happen quickly and misunderstanding is just not an option. Remember that to be a good crisis manager, you need to adapt your style and strategy to the situation. You can’t have a one-size-fits-all approach to the language you use.

That’s all for today. If you’d like to test yourself on what we’ve just covered, have a look at the myBEonline.com website. There you’ll find a quiz about today’s show as well as a complete transcript. Next week, we’ll return to our podcast series on managing a crisis. Listen carefully to how the people use both diplomatic and direct language. So long, and see you again soon.

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