How to Communicate Effectively at Work Using Language Psychology
“It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it.”
Annoyingly, your mum was right. Or at least partially; I would argue that the words you choose matter in equal parts to how you say them, especially at work.
But what is it about the way you speak that helps things to go your way?
Read on to find out more about effective business communication, why you use the words you do, and how to use them both to your advantage.
What Is Business Communication and Why Should You Care?
Excellent communicator. Comfortable conversing with the C-Suite. Highly personable.
Job descriptions are littered with requirements like these, but it’s common not to understand what they really mean, or how to evaluate your skills in this area.
Let’s define business comms as any written, spoken, and non-verbal signals you give in a professional context. This could range from writing emails to clients, participating in meetings with senior execs, or sending casual messages to your teammates.
You need to assess every situation to choose the best language for the job. And there’s lots to consider: your relationship with your audience, the communication format, and the formality of the setting for a start. As your communication skills develop, identifying the differences between these won’t be a conscious decision.
But strong communication across all these factors doesn’t come naturally to everybody, and that’s okay. To truly fulfil your potential in the workplace, it’s important to improve the areas you find more difficult.
The main benefits of effective communication in the workplace are:
- Productivity levels increase. By clearly outlining the objectives, processes, and deadlines for a project early on, everybody will be working towards a common goal, meaning you’ll see a quicker turnaround of work. This is due to the reduction in back-and-forth required to stay on track.
- Mistakes decrease. Miscommunication, or communication breakdown, is one of the primary reasons that mistakes happen at work. Avoid this, and you’ll be saving yourself a lot of time and energy down the line when you don’t have to clear up mistakes retrospectively.
- You look good. Strong communication skills present you in a good light. They indicate you know what you’re talking about, and you’re therefore more likely to land new clients, secure that promotion, get sign-off on an adventurous project, or succeed in whatever else you’re trying to achieve.
Keep Things Positive
It’s common knowledge that a positive mindset takes you far, and positive language can do the same. This doesn’t mean constantly complimenting everyone or avoiding situations that could result in criticism – it means reconsidering your language choices to present things in a more positive light.
One of the best methods for this is focusing on the solution to a problem, instead of dwelling on the issues you’ve encountered or assigning blame. For example, a client would much rather hear about all the things you’re going to do to improve their website, rather than all the things wrong with it and who is at fault.
Another way of reducing negativity in communication is by cutting down on words that hold typically negative meanings. Some such examples are “delayed”, “uncertain”, “neglected”, “forgot”, “problem”, and “limited”.
If this seems difficult, try to approach situations from a neutral position rather than one side or another.
Imposter syndrome can significantly impact your language too, leading you to undermine your point through poor, typically negative, language choices. Whilst not a new concept, it is becoming more widely recognised, particularly in the workplace. And those feelings of being unworthy or undeserving of your position or role are both common and natural, but they aren’t necessary.
You were hired to do your job because you’re a competent, capable individual, and the hiring team believed in your abilities and potential. You deserve to be where you are, and your language should reflect that.
Make sure to write your worth at work.
Why Did I Say That?
By gaining a better understanding of how humans communicate, even subconsciously, you can use it to your advantage. There are several theories on the psychology behind language, but potentially the most useful to understand is Howard Giles’ Accommodation Theory.
Have you ever noticed yourself speaking to someone and using words and phrases you wouldn’t normally use? Accommodation Theory explains this behaviour as an attempt to reduce or emphasise the social differences between each other in what’s called convergence or divergence.
Converging with someone, or adapting your language and behaviour to mirror theirs, reduces the perceived social difference between the two parties. You could do this by using similar slang, exaggerating your interest in something, or altering your accent to be more like theirs.
For example, a London-based agency could go out of their way to use region-specific language variants when pitching to a Northern client, which makes it appear that they understand and can relate to them more, which may help secure that win.
On the other hand, doing the opposite and diverging from someone’s language will make the differences between the two parties more pronounced, and could indicate superiority or asserting dominance.
One way of doing this is to purposefully use lots of jargon, or technical language, that you know is likely to confuse the other person – but this is typically best avoided, particularly in a business context where you’re aiming to meet common objectives or secure additional funding, for example.
Another concept of note was proposed by linguists Brown and Levinson, whose Politeness Theory explains people have several needs, including the need for autonomy (your negative face) and the need to be valued (your self-worth, known as your positive face). Assuming that politeness is how we treat others through language, they maintain that we can “harm” one another by threatening or offending these needs (faces), and speakers must work together in conversation to avoid this – or risk raising their defences and reducing the ability to co-operate.
Being two faced has never been so complicated!
You can threaten someone’s need for autonomy by suggesting they might need to do something (giving orders, making requests, etc.), or putting pressure on them to accept something. Alternatively, you could threaten someone’s self-worth by implying you have a negative opinion on something they’ve said or done, through criticism or insults for example.
Unfortunately, making so-called “face threatening acts” can’t always be avoided, so you must balance them with acts of politeness.
Brown and Levinson outline how you can use positive politeness to appeal to someone’s positive face (self-worth) by expressing solidarity with them and reducing the social distance between you both, similar to converging in Accommodation Theory. And use negative politeness to appeal to someone’s negative face (autonomy) by being respectful of their boundaries and avoiding exerting pressure – this could mean softening your phrasing such as replacing “You need to work late tonight.” with “Could you perhaps stay a bit later tonight?”.
With the knowledge that these concepts exist, you can make a conscious effort to use them to your advantage and hopefully have more success reaching your goals.
Communication Is More Than Just Speaking
Learning to be a good communicator isn’t just about using the right words, it’s also about how you interact and engage with people.
Be an active listener. Focus on what the other person is saying rather than thinking about what you’re going to say after. Not only will this help you to absorb more information, it also shows the other person you’re genuinely interested in their opinion.
Body language is key. People naturally pick up on subconscious signals you’re giving off by the way you hold yourself, so try to be aware of how your actions could be interpreted. Present yourself as friendly and open to discussion by keeping your arms uncrossed, making eye-contact, and smiling.
And finally, practice. Embrace the variety of comms opportunities you experience at work and make a note of what does and doesn’t work for you. Others can learn from your experience too, so feel free to share your tips below!