+Scott Watson

Thursday, 18 June 2009

It's Only Words - So Be Very Careful

Have you ever considered the impact that our language has on ourselves and also on other people? OK, you have probably had one or two occasions when you have said something in the heat of the moment that you've later regretted. Ouch! But what about everyday language, phrases that don't sound like they are harmful, but really can be.

Think about these little nuggets:

'I've spoken to him til I'm blue in the face'
...No you haven't. A blue face usually means you're either choking or your body is freezing. Nothing more. Have you ever seen someone's face go blue just because they're a little peeved at someone?

'He's too long in the tooth to learn anything new'
. What have long teeth got to do with someone's ability and/or willingness to learn?

'You can't teach an old dog new tricks'. Well, unless you work in a zoo or for the RSPCA, there's unlikely to be any dogs or tricks. Yet again, a few carefully selected words can cause problems.

During my very early years in executive and management development, some one to one coaching sessions could become rather heated. The key reason was the client had something on his or her mind and this forum was the only or safest place to be really open and genuine - which is always a nice experience. One such instance which I do have permission to share with you is when a very demanding boss who felt he was CONSTANTLY being LET DOWN by his 4 direct reports had reached THE END OF THE LINE (what line?) and was intent on taking these individuals OFF LINE (nice way of saying a real rollocking) and a PIECE OF MY MIND. He had been KICKED IN THE TEETH and STABBED IN THE BACK so many times that enough was enough.

This client was usually very assertive in his approach but not aggressive. Thankfully, our brief relationship had developed in to a high level trust relationship and we had permission to question, challenge and disagree with each other, but only on the condition that such behaviour would help him develop and grow. So here's what happened. After listening to a full 7 minutes of profanities mixed in with a table leg being kicked, profuse perspiring and my ears losing their feeling, I politely asked 'May I see your teeth?'. 'What?' he replied, somewhat shocked by my unusual request. 'May I see your teeth, just for a moment. I'd really like to see your gnashers', posturing with a big smile and clattering my teeth for full effect. His anger turned to shock, his shock turned to confusion, all in a matter of seconds. I continued, 'OK, you won't show me your teeth, I understand....so please take off your shirt.' This was a risky step. What reaction would I receive? Well, if you've been watching the tv series 'Ashes to Ashes' and picture the chief cop, Gene Hunt, the response wouldn't have looked out of place coming from his mouth. 'PROFANITY, no way pal', was followed a second or two later with a smile and a laugh when he pointed to me and said 'I know what you're up to Scott. You want to see all of the knife scars on my back don't you?'. 'Absolutely, and I'm sure there are many, aren't there?' I replied.

From this moment on, the coaching session returned to a calm, thinking environment where the things that mattered most to him and his company were thought through, talked through and solutions to each of the problems generated. And all in less than 2 hours. During the following 3 months, 3 of his managers began to perform better than they had ever done, while 1 other left the organisation by mutual agreement.

Just think what the possible outcome could have been if this really decent, hard-working and caring man had handled the situation in the manner he initially had intended. Managers could have been the walking wounded (oh, there I go, I'm doing it now), and their brains would have counted this latest verbal assault as the norm.

So remember, be very careful about the language you use and also, check understanding of what other people actually mean when they use old cliches to express how they are feeling at any given moment. It could save you many headaches and a few heartaches too.

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