Most of us have lost respect for the dozens of little words we use every day. Some of these words we use (or hear) every hour. The effects of these little words can be wonderful or catastrophic, and sometimes, both at once. To be specific, I'm thinking about words like only, always, yet, and frankly. The power they have comes from the frequency with which we use them, and the way we use them. They've all taken on secondary meanings that can overpower their literal meaning. And that secondary meaning is the basis of the big power of these little words.
In a previous post, "Corrosive Buts," Point Lookout for July 9, 2003, I examined the effects of but, which often appears in debates about options teams have for addressing issues. The usual form is "<Statement1> but <Statement2> and <Bad-Implication>". In this form, using but tends to be interpreted as contradicting <Statement1>, which is rarely the intent. The (unwelcome) result is oppositional debate instead of joint problem solving. That's why it's often much safer to use and in place of but.
There are many more examples of the big power from little words. Here are three more.
Example 1: Yet
Consider yet. Literally, it can mean "up to now," as in, "I haven't yet heard any rumors about that." And it can also mean "in addition to" or "besides," as in, "Your behavior gives me yet another reason to wonder about your upbringing." That first meaning, up-to-now, is one that gives yet power to change how we think about ourselves and our potential.
Use this device: when you state something about yourself that's self-critical, add yet at the end. For example, compare "I'm not a people-oriented manager," to, "I'm not a people-oriented manager yet." The former is a statement that describes stasis. There is no thought of the potential for change, or for acquiring new abilities. The latter, on the other hand, emphasizes the potential for change and learning.
Big power from a little word.
Example 2: No way
When The effects of little words can be
wonderful or catastrophic,
and sometimes, both at oncea group is considering the value of one option (call it Option A) compared to other options, they likely exchange predictions of the respective results of the options. In this context, the phrase no way might make an appearance. Because so much of what we do is so complicated, predicting outcomes is notoriously difficult. To assert that there is "no way" a given outcome can result from Option A is to claim an ability to predict results that probably cannot be justified. What we really mean by "no way" is "improbable" or "unlikely."
Asserting that there is "no way" Option A can work is at best overstating the certainty of the claim. And it's an overstatement that distorts the debate, because it transforms into fact a mere claim that's often based on speculation, intuition, or anecdotes. We do better when we distinguish facts from speculations. Reserve "no way" for statements of fact, and provide evidence to justify your claim.
Example 3: Best
Just as with "no way," in the context of comparing options, the word best might arise. As an adjective, best is the superlative form of good. It literally means "excelling all others." We expose ourselves to risk when we use best to describe one option (call it Option A) of the several options under consideration. The risk is that it can distort the debate because it can prevent participants from recognizing the possible existence of as-yet-unmentioned options.
Suppose Option A truly is the best of the options under consideration. In that case, a term more accurate than best might be best of these. That phrase is more literally accurate because it doesn't imply that Option A is superior to options not under consideration. It leaves open the possibility that an option not yet considered might be superior to Option A. And that opening might lead the participants to search for alternatives.
But the effects of best are even more insidious. In many option-comparison discussions, what we mean by best — what we actually can justify — is "none better than." That is, Option A might be good, and it might be about as good as some other options. That's a much weaker claim than a claim that Option A is best. By using the term best we distort the conversation by implying that a detailed comparison of Option A to the other options would show Option A to be superior to all. And, very probably, that's a comparison we haven't done, don't have time to do, and don't have the resources to do.
Instead of best, try none better than once in a while. See how often that opens up the discussion.
The little words in the list below are like levers. They give us access to the mental shortcuts people use when they interpret statements that use these words. Those mental shortcuts help us interpret what we see and hear quickly. That speed comes at the price of accuracy. The leverage we gain by using these words gives us the ability to guide others to interpret what we're saying more quickly and less accurately.
Below is a list of examples of little words and phrases that can give their users big power.
- Absolutely not, no way, in your dreams
- Always, never
- Better, better not, had best, you'd best
- Chill, calm down, cool your jets
- Frankly, honestly, to be honest/frank/candid
- If I were you
- Look, listen
- No, can't, won't
- Only, just
- Quotation marks
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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
- Our Last Meeting Together
- You can find lots of tips for making meetings more effective — many at my own Web site. Most are
directed toward the chair, or the facilitator if you have one. Here are some suggestions for everybody.
- Reframing Hurtful Dismissiveness
- Targets of dismissive remarks often feel that their concerns are being judged as unimportant, which
can be painful when their concerns are real. But there is an alternative to pain. It requires a little
skill and discipline, but it can work.
- The Passion-Professionalism Paradox
- Changing the direction of a group or a company requires passion and professionalism, two attributes
often in tension. Here's one possible way to resolve that tension.
- High Falutin' Goofy Talk: III
- Workplace speech and writing sometimes strays into the land of pretentious but overused business phrases,
which I like to call "high falutin' goofy talk." We use these phrases with perhaps less thought
than they deserve, because they can be trite or can evoke indecorous images. Here's Part III of a collection
of phrases and images to avoid.
- More Things I've Learned Along the Way: IV
- When I gain an important insight, or when I learn a lesson, I write it down. Here's Part IV from my
personal collection. Example: When it comes to disputes and confusion, one person is enough.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming September 27: On Working Breaks in Meetings
- When we convene a meeting to work a problem, we sometimes find that progress is stalled. Taking a break to allow a subgroup to work part of the problem can be key to finding simple, elegant solutions rapidly. Choosing the subgroup is only the first step. Available here and by RSS on September 27.
- And on October 4: Self-Importance and Conversational Narcissism at Work: I
- Conversational narcissism is a set of behaviors that participants use to focus the exchange on their own self-interest rather than the shared objective. This post emphasizes the role of these behaviors in advancing a narcissist's sense of self-importance. Available here and by RSS on October 4.
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