Do you ever ask yourself “why am I not being understood?” I used to. Not as much anymore.
While there are many reasons for that, one may be the consistency in the language we use. The structure of our sentences communicates more than just what we’re saying. How and when we use certain words can be a cue signaling how confident we are and/or how strongly we feel about our positions or instructions.
During a recent strategy review session with a client executive team, I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated with a, recently hired, executive’s presentation. Almost every statement he made seemed carefully crafted for “plausible deniability.” He never took ownership for the positions he was taking, or the assertions he made, and continuously used language that made it impossible to hold him accountable for anything. We felt like we were listening to an attorney crafting a legal document in real time — always looking for the escape-clause language. It was clear to me and the operating executives in the room, he’d been previously trained or groomed in the art of obfuscating; frequently used to avoid accountability in large organizations. The feedback I delivered after the meeting was clear and direct, accountability is not optional. Fortunately, despite the language, he actually was willing and prepared to take full accountability and ownership of his performance; and he did, even though, it took a while to change his communication style and break the bad habits.
In my experience, training ourselves to use consistent language patterns over time also trains our teams to recognize the confidence level we have in our positions and respond quickly and appropriately. It is also a powerful way to show our teams how prepared we are to be held accountable for our statements and position. We can generally break confidence levels into four categories:
The idea is to use language that communicates the level of confidence quickly and consistently and avoid guesswork by our teams. My approach may not work for everyone, but this is what I developed over the years to ensure clients and team members know exactly how to interpret what I am saying by the consistent language patterns I use.
● High Confidence – When I make definitive statements like “the approach needs to be X,” or “we should do Z,” they know I have done the research, reviewed the data, considered multiple options and have a high confidence level (95% or higher) in my position. There is no room for interpretation, and no doubt what my instructions are. A definitive statement signals I am prepared to be held accountable for the specific results of any actions derived from those statements, even knowing there is at least a 5% chance my assessment is wrong and things may not go as planned. My team also knows that, while I am always open to changing direction, the bar to convince me to change that particular decision or direction will be very high.
● Moderate Confidence – Starting a conversation with “I think we should do Z” is a clear signal that I did not have enough time, or couldn’t get to all the data I would have preferred, but I have done enough to feel confident in the direction of my thinking (75% or higher), but not ready to finalize precise actions or decisions. It lets my team know I have gaps in my thinking and before I agree to be held accountable, or ask them to accept accountability for results, we must close them. They also know that this is an invitation to bring additional information to the table to improve our collective thinking while staying in the same path.
● Slight Confidence – Sometimes, I start with “I believe the correct approach is X.” I use that tentative language when my confidence in my statement is hovering around 50% and when I am not sure even if the direction I am thinking about is correct. My team knows this is the time to challenge both the direction as well as the core assumptions behind my thinking.
● Zero Confidence – And then there are times when I start with “I guess an approach would be Z.” The word “guess” is an invitation to my team to brainstorm and signals there is nothing to be held accountable for, other than their sincere effort to contribute ideas.
So here something to consider; If you took time over the course of a few days to listen to yourself and the language you use, will you find consistent language patterns? If you do, what do those patterns communicate and how do they match with your planned intent?
If you don’t, how would you rethink and restructure your speech patterns so you can consistently communicate your confidence level in your statements, and the accountability you will accept for your statements?
Of course, you may choose to refrain from making definitive statements and being held accountable …. But what signal would that send?
I serve as a board member for The Tampa Bay Wave and The Lowth Entrepreneurship Center at the University of Tampa. The advice shared in this article is a preview to the counsel I provide to entrepreneurs, founders, and Private Equity and Venture Capital clients I’ve worked with over the past three decades. Feel free to contact me with any additional questions or business inquiries.