By Steve Adubato, PhD
Have you ever noticed that some people in the workplace have a tendency to use mushy language? I'm talking about senior level executives and others who get up to give a presentation and say things like; "I think if we possibly move forward on project x, we might be able to accomplish our goals in the not so distant future." What's that suppose to mean?
I am amazed at how many otherwise competent professionals communicate using such lame language. I'm not sure where it comes from or what's driving it, but it seems that some people have a tendency to couch their statements in a less than candid or direct fashion. Maybe it's about hedging bets or trying not to put people on the spot. The problem is that when we speak with all of these unnecessary qualifiers, we communicate a variety of misleading messages that we don't intend.
Over four decades ago, President John F. Kennedy made it crystal clear that his goal (in fact our country's goal) was to put a U.S. astronaut on the moon by the end of the decade. It was no accident that this happened. Real leadership requires that those in charge clearly state an organization's goal in an unequivocal fashion. Imagine if JFK had said at the time, "I don't know…It would be nice if we might be able to possibly put one of our guys on the moon sometime soon." If JFK had communicated in this fashion, how committed would the rest of the nation have been? We need to believe that our leaders believe in what they are saying.
What's particularly tricky about this issue is that most people who use these ambiguous words and phrases are often not even aware they are doing it. I've had clients in communications seminars or in executive coaching who are stunned when they see and hear themselves on video saying, "I think," "maybe" or "possibly" over and over again.
What is happening is that bad communication habits have been engrained into our psyche and presentation styles to the point where they have become second nature. Its is the same with presenters who utter "um" and "ah" incessantly without ever knowing they are doing it until it is pointed out to them. If you think these qualifying words and phrases are no big deal, think again. If you only "think" this is the right way to go, what am I as your audience supposed to think? I need to know that you believe in what you are saying in order for there to be any chance I am going to buy in.
Now, if you are really aren't sure what you are saying, then make that clear. It's okay not to be sure and to seek input or feedback on a possible decision or action, but that's not what's happening here. Professionals who say they are clear in the direction they want to go are consistently communicating in vague, ambiguous and ultimately confusing ways.
So what do we do about all this? The first thing is to acknowledge that you are actually doing it. Go ahead, use a camcorder or audiocassette recorder to tape your next presentation and then listen to how you sound. If you are communicating using mushy messages, start practicing making clear, unambiguous and confident statements. By doing this, you will automatically eliminate words and phrases such as, "I think." And if you do hear yourself using such language, try this approach; "I think…no, I know that if we move forward in this direction, we will accomplish our goals in the next 60 days." Great leaders leave little to the audience's interpretation. But communicating in this fashion doesn't happen overnight.