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The three key aspects of communication are:

tone, words and body language

which were first identified by Dr. Albert Mehrabian in the 1970’s. The words we use to communicate, clearly, have meaning and in a time of rising activism among Millenials, new words are being introduced every day to the public. Do we use disabled or differently-abled, what even is ‘ableist?’ LGBT now encompasses more orientations, making it LGBTQQIA or +. Young Latinos no longer write Latino or Latin@, but Latinx in order to include gender non-conforming individuals into the previously established gender binary. They/them/theirs/ze: how do we maneuver gender pronouns and all the new terms and groups that are gaining visibility?

While these are only a few examples showing how language is evolving, they show the importance of intentional communication. It may feel overwhelming that new terms are entering the workplace, but they are also a reflection of the rising diversity within the business world.

This is not a moment to walk on eggshells, but dive into the opportunity.

Speaking timidly or vaguely to avoid confrontation ends up serving nobody. Instead, if a miscommunication, offense or conflict occurs:

address it in the moment.

When we walk away from an uneasy conversation feeling wounded, the emotions increase and concretize. Think of this as a waste of your time and energy: instead

  1. breathe through the discomfort
  2. check your emotions
  3. clearly articulate what you want/need from the other person.

If you make your needs and preferences known, then a mishap turns into an opportunity to not only clear the air, but learn from the miscommunication.

If you are the one who mis-stepped, keep this in mind: asking instead of assuming will always serve you. It may take an extra moment of conscious effort, but it could mean the beginning of a pleasant, productive conversation or one of stumbling and defensiveness.

Patience is also key – in a time of heightened political correctness, someone new to these terms may feel put on the spot, or even embarrassed or disrespectful if they make a mistake. If one is clear on their privilege in the situation, their intentions and are open to feedback, they can enter the conversation with confidence. It is okay, mistakes still happen, as long as one maneuvers these situations with patience and mutual respect, the interaction won’t go completely awry.

Beyond some of these tips, let’s unpack why words (and how we use them) are so vital…

specifically in the workplace. We all hold some sort of power when we walk into a space and our words are a reflection of how we not only use that power, but relate to others in our space and, to get to the bottom line, communicate the team’s vision. How we interpret and respond to certain words are based in many factors, the main ones being:

Location – where the word is being said
Ex: Yell ‘Fire’ in the middle of a field, then yell ‘Fire’ in the middle of a crowded movie theater. Compare results.

Source – who is saying it
Ex: Women calling a night of socializing ‘girls night out’ is interpreted differently than when a man refers to such as a ‘girls night out.’

Familiarity – the level of closeness within the group the word or phrase is being used in. Ex: Saying an inside joke among a group of three friends will be interpreted very differently than if told at a public speaking event

Context – the context in which the word is placed
For example, the word ‘intense’ could be used negatively to describe a person i.e. “He is very intense.” Or to describe a person’s actions “She worked intensively for six hours straight.” Depending on the context, this word’s meaning nearly transforms.

(- Reversing the Ostrich Approach to Diversity: Pulling Your Head out of the Sand)

According to the Harvard Business Review, our brain chemistry also plays a large role in how we interpret feedback, specifically:

“When we face criticism, rejection or fear, when we feel marginalized or minimized, our bodies produce higher levels of cortisol, a hormone that shuts down the thinking center of our brains and activates conflict aversion and protection behaviors. We become more reactive and sensitive. We often perceive even greater judgment and negativity than actually exists. And these effects can last for 26 hours or more, imprinting the interaction on our memories and magnifying the impact it has on our future behavior. Cortisol functions like a sustained-release tablet – the more we ruminate about our fear, the longer the impact.”

On the flip side, positive conversation produces oxytocin, which is a feel-good hormone. When we produce ample amounts of this hormone, we are even able to communicate, collaborate and trust others – however, this hormone metabolizes much faster so its effects are less enduring. Due to the chemical effects of our forms of communication, it is key for leaders, managers and team leaders to be intentional with how they speak to their employees, whether it be in running through an agenda, brainstorming or delivering feedback. This is not to say that feedback or constructive criticism should be avoided, but the way in which it is delivered not only affects the person on the receiving end, but long-term effects and changes within a team post-criticism. Beyond avoiding outwardly negative ways of communicating, it is also important to personalize your language to your team: what words or phrases embody the culture you are trying to foster and are reflective of the values of the team, at large? Cultural differences come into play here. Take into account who makes up your team, as individuals, and what value systems they are entering the space with. Now, what are the goals of the team, how do they work together? Tailor language to reflect these aspects.

So, what do we learn from this? Communication is complicated:

it goes far beyond the words themselves. Word choice, context and tone can steer a conversation or meeting in a productive, open direction where innovative ideas and collaboration are fostered, or it could steer the moment into one of negativity and defensiveness. As a leader in a workspace, the old-time phrase “lead by example” here is applicable. And with new terms and a more diverse workplace than ever before, the best examples of communication are changing. Communication is a tricky and evolving concept, but when we put conscious effort into how we communicate, with respect and intention, the effects are immense. They can make the difference from a discouraged, closed-off team to one that is open to collaboration and innovation – bringing their individual selves and talents to the larger project.


Works Cited

Blog, Personal Branding. “In Workplace Communication, Words Do Matter.” Small Business Trends, Small Business Trends, 1 Nov. 2017, smallbiztrends.com/2014/05/workplace-communication-words-do-matter.html.

Boguhn, Ally. “What’s in a Word? Navigating Language as an Activist.” Everyday Feminism, 25 Mar. 2014, everydayfeminism.com/2014/03/navigating-language-activist/.

Fallon, Nicole. “Leadership Language: Why Your Word Choices Matter.” Business News Daily, 27 June 2016, www.businessnewsdaily.com/9186-leadership-language.html.

Glaser, Judith E. GlaserRichard D. “The Neurochemistry of Positive Conversations.” Harvard Business Review, 6 Dec. 2017, hbr.org/2014/06/the-neurochemistry-of-positive-conversations.

Tolbert, Amy. Parra, Alexis. Jesperson, Patricia.Reversing the Ostrich Approach to Diversity: Pulling Your Head out of the Sand. 2019.