Was today really a disaster?

John McLachlan, co-founder of Monkey Puzzle Training and Consultancy, looks at the impact of language in the workplace.

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Choose your language carefully, especially when addressing employees

The words we use matter; they’re a critical part of how we understand and interact with the world, and they’re the absolute heart of how we interact with others. We use words to map parts of the world out; we form associations around words, which is how we understand them as references to real things instead of just vocal noise. This means that certain words cause a marked response in us; we see pictures, hear sounds, and feel emotions.

It’s important to be clear about what we’re saying, to ourselves and to others. We’re given to exaggeration, understatement and a bunch of other habits which cloud what we say, or cause us to pick the wrong word, often because we’re more focused on creating an effect than accurately conveying information or even opinion.

Disaster is a great word for creating an effect. “My day was a disaster!”, we might be inclined to huff. Was it though? It might seem like a trivial exaggeration which is unlikely to have any real effect. After all, we all know what is meant, don’t we?

Calling a negative event ‘a disaster’ changes the image of the event which gets painted inside your head. The idea might be to get attention, to encourage action or to create focus, but ultimately using a word as negative as ‘disaster’ encourages us to see the event as far worse than it really is. When disaster rears its head, people tend not to react especially well: often people will worry, point fingers, and ultimately sit still for fear of a disaster.

One of the key requirements for dealing well with an issue is accurate information, accurate feedback. If you find yourself tempted to call a situation a disaster, try to focus on what actually might or actually did happen, this can help you to calm down, focus on the real consequences, and hopefully identify an absence of real disaster followed by a better word to use. If something has already happened, what has happened, and what do you want to do now? Focusing on looking forward will help you to make the next move. If you’re worrying about something which might happen, look at what you could do if it was to happen, and how likely that is to occur: again, this will help you to get real about the situation and remain calm.

Disasters do happen. We frequently hear about them on the international news, but the thing is that disasters normally do make the news. They do not, by contrast, happen at your monthly sales meeting. Saying what is rather than what isn’t happening will help you to take control of what is happening, and will make your life easier.

The next time someone reports a ‘disaster’, try jumping up and shouting “Man the lifeboats!” and see what happens.

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