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Make Sure You Choose the Right Words – Innovation Excellence

by Mike Shipulski

We all want to make progress. We all want to to do the right thing. And we all have the best intentions. But often we don’t pay enough attention to the words we use.

There are pure words that convey a message in a kind soothing way and there are snarl words that convey a message in a sharp, biting way. It’s relatively easy, if you’re paying attention, to recognize the snarl and purr. But it’s much more difficult to take skillful action when you hear them used unskillfully.

A purr word is skillful when it conveys honest appreciation, and it’s unskillful when it manipulates under the banner of false praise. But how do you tell the difference? That’s where the listening comes in. And that’s where effective probing can help.

If you sense unskillful use, ask a question of the user to get at the intent behind the language. Why do you think the idea is so good? What about the concept do you find so interesting? Why do you like it so much? Then, use your judgment to decide if the use was unskillful or not. If unskillful, assign less value to the purr language and the one purring it.

But it’s different with snark words. I don’t know of a situation where the use of snarl words is skillful. Blatant use of snarl words is easy to see and interpret. And it looks like plain, old-fashioned anger. And the response is straightforward. Call the snarler on their snarl and let them know it’s not okay. That usually puts an end to future snarling.

The most dangerous use of snarl words is passive-aggressive snarling. Here, the snarler wants all the manipulative benefit without being recognized as a manipulator. The pros snarl lightly to start to see if they get away with it. And if they do, they snarl harder and more often. And they won’t stop until they’re called on their behavior. And when they are called on their behavior, they’ll deny the snarling altogether.

Passive-aggressive snarling can block new thinking, prevent consensus and stall hard-won momentum. It’s nothing short of divisive. And it’s difficult to see and requires courage to confront and eviscerate.

If you see something, say something. And it’s the same with passive-aggressive snarling. If you think it is happening, ask questions to get at the underlying intent of the words. If it turns out that it’s simply a poor choice of words, suggest better ones and move on. But if the intent is manipulation, it must be stopped in its tracks. It must be called by name, its negative implications must be be linked to the behavior and new behavioral norms must be set.

Words are the tools we use to make progress. The wrong words block progress and the right ones accelerate it.

Why not choose the right words?

 
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shipulskiMike Shipulski brings together people, culture, and tools to change engineering behavior. He writes daily on Twitter as @MikeShipulski and weekly on his blog Shipulski On Design.


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