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Having words for what you’re thinking is such a valuable asset, especially when you’re working together with a team. Think about it. Have you ever been in a staff meeting with sensitive information to share but not quite sure how to get into it? Have you ever been trying to rally the troops and talked way too long and experienced nothing but blank stares in return? Conversely, how helpful would it be to have common vocabulary (phrases, terms and code) that everyone intuitively understands and immediately brings everyone on the same page?
Highly functioning teams do this all the time without even knowing that’s what they’re doing. They create and adopt code words that signal certain ideas, concepts and practices that everyone on the team understands implicitly. They provide moments of clarity when everyone knows what is happening and why it’s happening and then how to proceed — all because of the common vocabulary.
For example, one of the more common phrases around our office is: “It’s time to share the final 10 percent.” We all know what that phrase means. It signals that a hard conversation is coming.
Most people, especially in the midst of conflict, have a hard time talking about the “real” issue. They don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. They don’t want to be perceived as troublemakers. They don’t want to be misunderstood. So they say about 80 to 90 percent of what they are really thinking about and hint at the final 10 percent. Unfortunately, hinting at something rarely leads to clear understanding, so by pulling out the phrase, “We need to address the final 10 percent,” everyone knows what’s coming. They are prepared for something hard, and it’s more likely that the real issue is discussed. We have the right words at the right time.
Every group has this kind of shorthand; highlighting it and making it “official” gives people permission to operate on the basis of agreed-upon practices. But sometimes people don’t have this kind of insider language, to which I would say, “Develop one.”
Some of our best learning has come out of analyzing our conversations and determining what went well and what went poorly — and why. Often, what we discover is that the turning point in any conversation boils down to something that was said that either sabotaged the conversation or raised it to another level. We note the sabotages and say to each other, “Let’s do less of that.” But, more importantly, we note and codify the successes and make the positive turning-point phrases part of our official corporate language.
How helpful would that be for you? How good would it feel to have the right words at the right moment? How much time could you save by having common vocabulary that ensures your team knows what you want to do and immediately joins you there? Why not take your next staff meeting to identify and formalize some of your best insider quotes and conversation facilitators? Perhaps you’ll discover afresh that having the right words really can make all the difference.
“Please help me understand.”
Instead of assuming that we know what’s behind a particular conversation or action (and making a judgment or declaration about it), we find it helpful to ask a clarifying question instead. Make sure you understand before you jump to conclusions.
“Umbrella of grace”
This is when we have something hard to share, and we are not sure we will be able to say it well, but we don’t want to avoid the hard subject. Asking for an umbrella of grace gives us permission to say what we have to say less than perfectly.
“Pulled out a shotgun to kill the mosquito”
Sometimes people are unaware of how emotional they can get when communicating about a matter. When the energy behind the topic seems overdone, we can use this phrase (sometimes tongue-in-cheek) to help a person find perspective. It can also open the door to discovering why there is so much emotion behind the conversation in the first place.
“Qualify, qualify, qualify.”
As they say in real estate, it is all about location, location, location. So it is in crucial conversations. Try qualifying with phrases such as: “It appears to me” or “I might not have all the information” or “This is a five out of possible 10, but it is still important.” These qualifiers can grease the emotional tracks in all kinds of otherwise difficult conversations and make the hard truth so much easier to bear.