Dale Carnegie, author of “How to Make Friends and Influence People,” once said, “90 percent of all management problems are caused by miscommunication.”
Miscommunication caused by poor use of language or choice of words is very common in the workplace, and often has serious, unintended consequences. When we miscommunicate with our team and colleagues, the impact on team engagement can be immediate: it can lead to misunderstood expectations, create a toxic work environment and stop us from having the right conversations.
Miscommunication is almost never intentional, in fact, often it simply occurs because we’re in a rush, or because we have something on our mind. However, as a leader it’s essential to remember that it’s not always about intention, but about perception.
Take a minute to think about how you communicate with your team, or reflect on the last time you delivered feedback and ask yourself these two questions: : “How could I have phrased that idea in a different way?”, or “What words would have communicated my point more positively?”
Knowing the right thing to say, and when to say it, isn’t always easy, so in this post, we’ll be examining the use of language in our conversations with one another—specifically, the use of descriptive language versus judgemental language.
What do we mean by descriptive language?
Descriptive language uses words and terms in a clear and unambiguous way, and leaves little room for interpretation. Descriptive language is a core part of communicating effectively and is conducive to a productive work relationship because it ensures both parties have a common understanding of what is being discussed. Both participants are on the same page because specific facts and examples are being referred to and the conversation is focused on specific behaviours, not intentions or attitudes.
What is judgemental language?
On the other hand, judgemental conversation reveals personal opinion and perception and is therefore biased. Word choice leans towards emotive rather than impersonal; it is vague and generalised because the speaker tends to refer to previously held beliefs instead of using evidence to support their argument. We will be breaking down some examples of judgemental language further below.
When we compare descriptive against judgemental language, we can start to understand how descriptive language enhances our conversations with one another. By nature, it assumes positive intent and builds inclusion in conversations, because it is not judgemental and therefore not biased.
How can you introduce descriptive language into your communication?
To get you thinking about how you might use descriptive language in your conversations, we’ve put together some examples of common workplace situations below:
Situation 1: Your employee is constantly late to meetings
Instead of saying: “You are always late.”
This implies inherent judgement and disapproval.
Say this: “The past four team meetings, you have been late by at least half an hour which means we have had to backtrack to bring you up to speed and we’re not getting the best outcomes for our team meetings.”
This rephrases the same message in a more detailed, non-judgemental way that clearly communicates how being late is impacting the team.
Situation 2: A one-on-one with a team member
Instead of saying: “Let me know if you have any problems.”
Say this: “As you’re working through a, b and c, give me a call on the phone with any questions that spring to mind, or if there is anything you don’t feel clear about on x, y z, let’s discuss in our next one-on-one.”
Situation 3: Giving feedback
Instead of saying: “You need to think on your feet.”
Say this: “It’s helpful to the conversation if you can share responses to different types of conversations as they come up.”
Situation 4: When your team is under-performing
Instead of saying: “We aren’t where we need to be and we’re running out of time.”
Say this: “We’re 25% below budget for the year currently and we have two months remaining to deliver.”
In our video below, Culture and Leadership Partner Peter Cheel talks about how you can consciously incorporate descriptive language into your conversations and see the effects that follow.
Leadership Essentials: Communication Toolkit
Our video-based online short courses encompass everything from conducting honest conversations, giving and receiving feedback, holding effective one-on-one meetings, working with your team to understand poor performance and more. To find out how our online learning modules can supplement your leadership and communication skills, take a look at our course overviews here.