Skills 360 – Mind your Language (Part 2)

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Hello and welcome back to Skills 360. I’m your host Tim Simmons, and today we’re going to look at more ways to mind your language.

If language was just about meaning we would probably communicate very directly with as few words as possible. But it’s not, and we don’t. Every time we speak, we are not only conveying meaning but also acting socially. We need to consider relationships, feelings, and perception. So we mind our language.

Last time I talked about modals and the difference between saying “you must” do something and “could you” do something. Those two ways of speaking are miles apart. Today I’ll talk about lots of other ways to soften our language.

Let’s start with three relatively simple adverbs: “rather,” “quite,” and “fairly.” You can use these words before an adjective to soften the tone a bit. A co-worker asks you about a letter he has written. You think it’s too wordy. But you don’t say, “It’s too wordy.” Instead, you soften the effect by saying, “It’s rather wordy.” Or instead of saying “It’s too formal,” you say, “It’s quite formal.” You’re only switching one small word, but it makes a big impact.

Now let’s look at three relatively simple adjectives: “little,” “slight,” and “minor.” Think about the difference between “The website has a problem,” and “The website has a slight problem.” It’s neither here nor there how big the problem is. Calling it “slight” helps to make the statement less forceful.

It’s really amazing how adding just single words can change the effect of what we are saying. Two of the most common softening words are “maybe” and “perhaps.” These words can transform a definitive statement into a mere possibility, like this: “Perhaps we need to consider letting a few employees go for the summer.” Or this: “Maybe what you should do is talk to Jane directly.”

All of these words I’ve mentioned are part of what we call “hedging” language. Hedging language simply makes our statements less assertive.

There are more ways to hedge. One useful technique is to qualify the number, frequency, and certainty. Qualifying numbers means using expressions like “a few,” “some,” or “several.” So instead of saying “There are mistakes,” you can say, “There are a few mistakes.” It’s softer. Qualifying by frequency means using expressions such as “occasionally,” “sometimes,” or “from time to time.” On a performance review, for example, it may be useful to say, “From time to time Joe does not prepare sufficiently for presentations.” And qualifying by certainty means using modals such as “might,” “could,” and “may.” So rather than saying, “Our bid will not be successful,” you can say, “Our bid might not be successful.” In all of these examples, you can see how one expression can tone down the strength of our statements.

Sometimes hedging and qualifying require more than just one word. There are a variety of expressions we can use to change a statement of fact into one of opinion or curiosity. Here’s a situation: a designer shows up at a meeting with some new brochure designs. You think the designs are too trendy for your company. So here’s what you say: “I wonder whether these designs are a bit too edgy for our brand.” By introducing the idea with “I wonder whether,” it sounds like you are just thinking out loud, rather than making an assertive pronouncement. It’s softer, and the meaning will get through with less risk of offending someone.

You can also admit upfront that what you’re about to say is just your opinion. You can do this with expressions like “from my perspective,” “the way I see it,” and “in my opinion.” These phrases are diplomatic because they seem to say “I understand that you might have a different opinion.”

And that’s important. People are more likely to accept your ideas, opinions, suggestions, and directions if they think you’re not trying to ram them down their throats. When you come across as too assertive, demanding, or authoritative, your social message will cloud your real message. And that’s counterproductive.

So long. And see you again soon.