Skills 360 – Mind your Language (Part 1)

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Welcome back to the Skills 360 podcast. I’m your host Tim Simmons, and today I’m going to encourage you to mind your language.

What on earth do I mean by, “mind your language?” Well, consider a statement like this: “We have to cut costs. Meet me in your office at 2:00 so we can talk about how to do this.” How does that sound? The statement doesn’t have any problems with grammar or vocabulary. But how does it sound? Is it acceptable? Well, what if I said this instead: “I think that cutting our costs might be a good idea. How about sitting down to talk about this? Would 2:00 in your office work?”

You can surely see that the second statement is softer than the first. I don’t just mean it’s more polite. I mean it’s less forceful and more diplomatic. Now, I don’t want to suggest that forceful or authoritative language is never useful or necessary. It is useful for some people in some situations. But in the majority of our everyday communication, we need to mind our language. I’m not just talking about keeping things nice for clients and customers. I’m also talking about fostering good relationships with colleagues, superiors, and subordinates. Yes, today’s managers have to mind their language when speaking to those they manage. So let’s talk about how we can do this.

For starters, we need to look at a very important group of words called modal verbs. Modals are words like, “might,” “would,” and “must.” These words carry not just meaning, but power. Just think about it. A project leader comes to you on a Friday morning and says “You must come in tomorrow to finish the report.” And you grit your teeth. Or he comes to you and says “We really should get that report done before Monday. Would you be able to come in tomorrow and help get that finished?” The difference is clear. The second statement uses “should” and then “would” to make a request. But the first statement uses “must,” which is too forceful. Come to think of it, how often do you really hear people use the word “must?” In fact, it’s simply too strong for most situations.

Okay then. How are these modals grouped? Well, we’ve got a bunch of strong ones, including “must,” “have to,” and “need to.” These modals present no choice. They are used to give orders or showing obligation. Then we have a group of medium-strength modals, such as “might,” “may,” “can,” “should,” “could,” and “ought to.” These expressions can be used for recommendations, suggestions, and advice. Then we have requests, which we can make with words like “can,” “will,” “could,” and “would.”

Now listen to how changing one word slightly can change the tone of a statement. Imagine a colleague comes into your office to talk about a presentation you have just given. He says, “You should have used fewer slides.” Or he says “You could have used fewer slides.” Can you see how using “could have” sounds like a gentle suggestion while “should have” sounds too opinionated?

This is really about tone and effect rather than just meaning. The trick here is that we often use softer language even when we want to express a stronger idea. For example, what if I’m a senior engineer talking to a junior technician. I want to tell him to do something. He doesn’t really have a choice. But I really don’t want to come across as a jerk. So I don’t say, “you have to finish those drawings today.” Instead, I say, “We really should have those drawings finished today.” Or “those drawings are important, so could you have them done by the end of the day please?” You see? I’m using the language of recommendation or request to tell the technician what to do. My language might seem to indicate that he has a choice, but given the context, he doesn’t.

This is an important idea. It relates to something called imperatives. An imperative is an order, like “close the window” or “clean my cup.” There’s no subject there, just a verb. In many languages, imperatives are not considered rude. But in English, they are generally too forceful. So we avoid them by using requests. You will hear people during a meal say “could you please pass the salt,” rather than “give me the salt.” In fact, “give me” is the king of impolite imperatives. This has produced a rhyme that many children grow tired of hearing adults recite: “gimme gimme never gets, don’t you know your manners yet?”

So, while our parents kindly remind us to mind our language, our colleagues, supervisors, and clients will not. They will simply be put off, disgruntled, or downright offended. Today we’ve covered modals, imperatives, and requests, but there are lots of other ways we can soften our language. Tune in next time to find out how.