How to Get What You Want Without Sounding Like a Total A-Hole.
Even people with the best intentions can come off sounding like total a-holes sometimes. Why? Because the way that they’re expressing themselves is, in one way or another, offensive to those around them. In work settings, this can be particularly challenging- many don’t have the ability to tell off an employer or stomp out of the office, so as leaders (and those that work with/for them), it’s our responsibility to learn to communicate in the most effective and non-offensive ways possible. Sometimes “being short” with someone can come off as rude or demanding. In fact, this is something that many professionals are taught to do- CEOs and other executives are inclined to keep e-mails short, as are University faculty and other busy individuals. In graduate school, I was encouraged to keep e-mails to faculty as brief as possible (“brief” is a relative term). The truth is that communication, be it verbal or written, can be concise while still being affirming, genuine and effective.
Here are some things to be mindful of when talking to (or e-mailing) others:
Avoid passive-aggressive remarks:
Don’t slip an underhanded insult into the conversation- it doesn’t go unnoticed, and it can make you look slimy. One of the problems with this method of communication is that it does not allow someone to defend themselves or speak to this comment without it appearing confrontational. The implicit insult feels like a stab in the back: you didn’t see it coming, and it’s really not a fair fight. If you have something to say, find a way to approach it with transparency or don’t bring it up at all.
Focus on/position the issue outside of the person (ie. externalization):
Conversations are far more effective when we remove the shame and blame that comes with internalizing a problem. Even something as simple as “Did you finish that?” to “how’s that coming along?” goes from an internalized, closed option answer “yes/no, I did/n’t” to an externalized, open-ended answer: “it’s going along great; it’s tough; this or that is happening, etc.”. It’s not only removing blame, but it’s also opening up the discussion so that details of the task are the focus, rather than the individual themselves.
Nothing is more effective than encouraging someone to join you in collaboration to solve a problem. It says, “we’re in this together”, and makes you a team, rather than individuals at odds. Conversations that are presented collaboratively diminish defensiveness and increase engagement.
Avoid (unnecessary) statements of responsibility:
Nice people often subsume responsibility through their language (“let me take care of that for you right away!”) because they want to be helpful. What that does is removes all responsibility from the other individual(s) and puts it right on you. So when the project isn’t finished because so-and-so in such-and-such department was sick, or when the client is pissed because some other whosy-who did this-or-that, now you (sweet, well-intentioned you) are on the hook for it. Instead, try using collaboration and externalization when offering to help: “I imagine that we can get this done right away. I will go check with so-and-so in such-and-such department!” Only take on what you have control over.
This is NOT to say that you blame others for mistakes that you have made. We must all remain responsible to those around us if we want to continue to have productive and effective work relationships. If you messed up, be honest, sincere and work to resolve your issue.
Acknowledge those around you:
People want to work with those that recognize their hard work, passion, dedication and experience. Letting people know that you notice these things honors them, decreasing threat (“s/he’s out to take my job”) and increasing collaboration. Countless people have told me how little they appreciate the generic “Great job! thanks for working here!” comments. Though the intention is good, it remains dismissive of that individual’s contributions, and instead of making them feel noticed, it makes them feel invisible. Oops.
Understand Closed and Open-Ended Questions:
Closed: Allowing for only “yes” and “no” answers. These don’t always give us the information that we need (ie. any details) and can, at times, put unnecessary responsibility or blame on people. Examples include: “Did you? will you? can you? have you? are you going to?” Even changing the wording of a closed-ended question can make questions more benign: “Did you take your lunch?” vs. “Was there a chance to eat lunch?” shifts the responsibility from the person to daily circumstances (externalization).
Open-Ended: Allowing many subjective responses and important detail. These tend to feel less threatening because people may position themselves appropriately in relation to a situation, rather than just saying “yes” or “no”. “How? What? Why?” are examples for how these sentences may start. Our example for positioning (above) was a comparison of a closed- and open-ended question. Another example: “What’s your day looking like?” is open-ended, versus “Are you busy/free today?”, which is closed. Get it? Here’s the simplest rule: how would you answer this question? If it’s with “yes” or “no”, it’s closed.
I hope that this list is helpful and a nice start to evolving the way we communicate with others. Philosophers such as Derrida and Postmodernist therapists such as Michael White have long proposed the idea that our words give things meaning. Psychologists are now seeing this in the research as well: people are better able to rationalize and problem-solve when they use a secondary language, rather than their primary, as it removes some of the “loaded” meaning that we place on things. This also explains some of the benefit of talk therapy- it’s helpful to speak our minds, and helpful to see our own words (why I use a whiteboard in therapy and/or give clients a copy of the notes) and even more helpful when we can do it skillfully. The way you speak to those that you work with can make or break your relationships, which are critical to an effective and pleasant work environment. Get what you want without sounding like an a-hole. Your team will be grateful and can often reciprocate the tone that you set for the work environment you wish to create: affirming, genuine and effective.
Jacques Derrida. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacques_Derrida. Retrieved July 13, 2012.
Michael White. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_White_%28psychotherapist%29. Retrieved July 13, 2012.