Call me an idealist. I believe that we should strive to use elevated language in our business dealings to ensure we are clear and effective in our communications. I try not to be dismayed by the lowering of standards in our society, but it’s hard.
Just look at all the trolls on Twitter who have taken over a lot of the political discourse. It seems many are emulating the bullying personas that have become all too prevalent, whether it be teen cyber-bullying, pop culture braggadocio or even mean-spirited tweets by a presidential candidate.
Perhaps you’ve been on the receiving end of a barrage of angry electronic comments in the social media world, even in business. I was recently asked whether steering clear of social media is one way to avoid all this. Sure, but I don’t advocate becoming a digital hermit in a digital world. I do recommend you respond to cyber critics, but in a kindly way and not in kind.
The best advice I ever heard at a writing conference came from an unlikely source: a retired FBI agent. He had been dispensing advice to newspaper reporters on how to deal with unwilling interview subjects. A reporter related a problem he was having with a cantankerous town council member and how this public official would shout down anyone who asked questions, even perfectly legitimate public policy questions. The retired investigator advised, “never shout back at a shouter. He’s been doing it his whole life and will be better at it than you.”
The advice was to instead maintain poise and an even tone. This tone may just aggravate the shouter, he added. The retired investigator then related a story about a time he patiently sat in a witness box while a criminal defense lawyer shouted at him with questions. The lawyer came closer and closer to the witness, all the while shouting. The witness waited for the right moment and then calmly asked if the lawyer would mind taking a few steps back. Why, asked the lawyer, am I intimidating you? No, came the reply, you are getting your spittle on me. The jury cracked up, the investigator said.
Funny, this writing conference was in the 1990s and back then boorish behavior was considered out of the norm, but today it is all too common. Sometimes people may not even realize what they are saying in business might be crossing a line, even inadvertently. I recently ran into a man at a coffee who was saying something that just didn’t sit right with me.
I wondered if he really meant what it sounded like, so I deployed a simple and effective communications mechanism. I asked him if I could summarize what I thought I heard him saying and, once I related what the message seemed to be, he seemed surprised. This gave him a chance to quickly correct what he really meant. It is a lot easier to give people a second chance with feedback than to dismiss them outright. All too often in today’s discourse, people are too harsh, critical and rude. To rise above the fray, stake out that higher ground and stick to it. Use thoughtful language and tone, maintain professionalism and speak on the level at which you want to be addressed.
For more communications consulting, contact Katharine Fraser.