Language is getting really interesting lately. Fake news? Alternate facts? The non-apology-apology? Who knew? The current linguistic environment is instructive, scary, and actually great fun. “Words Have Consequences” we keep hearing, so thinking about avoiding unintended consequences can be really important especially in a highly charged communications environment, like providing feedback or negotiating.
Here are some ways that make language so interesting.
We can learn a lot about people from the specific words they use, for example, whether someone is from the east or west coast. On the east coast we always referred to “sneakers,” not “tennis shoes.” Maybe easterners sneak-around more than play tennis. We also said "scallions" rather than "green onions," and "highway" rather than "freeway." Not sure who says “on line” v. “in line.”
We can also gain insight into how people think by how extreme, dramatic, or absolute their language is. Is everything a “disaster, horrible, carnage?” This approach might refer to a way of thinking as well as a way of talking. It also makes people sound like drama queens.
If people use absolutes and extremes often (always, never, catastrophe), then they probably don’t realize they are thinking only in terms of absolutes. Dealing with such emotionally charged language can be exhausting, and after a while we stop believing it and stop trying to comfort the speaker. Not responding will not stop the pattern; it really does require some difficult feedback and gentle questioning and coaching. (Is it always a catastrophe? Wasn’t there are least one time when it wasn’t a disaster?)
In addition, an absolutist view of the world allows for nothing in between the extremes, for no compromise and no tolerance or even recognition for gray areas, so negotiating becomes very difficult. Being aware of this pattern can help you avoid getting sucked into it.
So called “tough negotiators” often use absolutes and extreme positions to get an agreement that strongly favors their positions. The idea is to intimidate the other party into making an agreement that puts them at a loss but is considered better than what they expected if the other party had held fast to the original demand, actually an ultimatum.
Intransigence is also an indicator of power plays, not honest and ethical negotiations. Negotiations are generally based on needs, interests, or power, and beginning with extreme positions or an ultimatum is power-based. Not a good sign.
For really good negotiation suggestions, read “Start with No” by Jim Camp. His suggestion is to determine what your bottom line is (and he shows how to do that), and decide in advance when to leave the table and say NO to the whole process. If you make what seem to be little concessions along the way, then the final agreement will be one big concession, and it’s important to know how not to get into that pattern.
Another technique that’s becoming frighteningly more common is called “otherizing.”
Identifying an individual or members of a specific group as “not part of our group” is to classify them as “the other,” to engage in what is called “attribution bias,” in conflict resolution terms. This classification can be based on a stereotype, on a history of hatred or blood feuds, or as we see in current events, on recent incidents that create fear that turns to hate and a need for revenge, or at least retaliation.
One of the behaviors based on attribution bias (my group always acts from good intentions and your group always acts from bad intentions), is that it allows us to define this group as exempt from fairness and justice. Once we have vilified a group, we are relieved of the requirement to act justly and fairly to all members of that group, so “justice” is often meted out broadly, harshly, quickly, and without any evidence of wrong-doing.
This approach also denies the individuality of members of the group and generalizes that “they’re all alike,” so they must all be treated in the same terrible way. Give that group a name and each time the name is used, the same hateful image is pasted to every member of that group. There are more than enough events in history to provide examples.
One last pattern that I saw frequently in coaching clients: statements that begin with apologies that set people up for being insulted with the excuse that “that’s just me” or “that’s my culture” or “I just put stuff out there.” I consider this approach an example of not wanting to make the effort to find a nicer way to provide difficult feedback, especially if you have not yet created a sense of trust or a relationship that supports this communication.
If you know the person receiving the feedback, and especially if you don’t, start with a neutral observation or a thoughtful question about how things are going. Ask about a specific situation and then explore how it might have gone better. Then provide feedback to improve the listener’s skills or understanding. With no relationship built, or no previous contact, there is little reason the other person should pay any attention to what you’re saying despite your expertise or position. There is danger in getting too personal too quickly, so keep these conversations professional and as neutral and coaching-like as possible.
There is so much more to comment on! In the meantime, remember Ken Cloke’s admonition: Honesty in the content and empathy in the delivery.
Have an absolutely wonderful and peaceful week.