Speaking Up: Small Words Matter

Small Words Matter

In a recent post, Leading With Civility: 4 Lessons for Speaking Up at Work, the case was made for the importance for speaking up in the workplace.

When speaking up even small words can impact meaning.

The problems with small words came to my attention after reading a blog post of a mediator and attorney in private practice.  I  had just met Kristen Hall of KH Mediation at a Des Moines West Side Chamber of Commerce event.

Ms. Hall explained that a mediator is an impartial party that helps conflicting participants first identify issues, determine the breakdown in communication and develop a plan for moving forward with an eye toward preventing future conflicts.

The blog post that caught my attention on the KH Mediation website gives an example how selecting the right words can impact how communication will be heard. Ms Hall writes:

Focus on what is, rather than what “shoulda, coulda, woulda” been.  At the end of the day we are where we are.  A good example is the proverbial glass of water.  Optimism says it is half full.  Pessimism says it is half empty.  Being present says it is four ounces, how do we make the most of it. It allows us to be solution oriented.  One way to do this is to replace “but” with “and.”   For example, consider these two sentences.

I want to turn in our report in three days but my partner wants to get everyone’s input before we complete it.


I want to turn in our report three days and my partner wants to get everyone’s input before we complete it.

This made me remember the problem with the word “but.”  According the the dictionary, this word is used to contradict something that has already been stated. So when we use that word we are negating everything stated prior to the word.

In the example above, If I were the speaker, I would be saying that I want to turn in our report. However in reality, because I used the word “but” I am implying that my partner is the reason for my lack of action on the three day time frame. Now, the listener sees me as less powerful because I am placing blame and not accepting responsibility. I move from a position of standing tall to appearing weak without even physically changing my physical posture.

In the cartoon at the top of the post, the listener is confused.  The speaker used words to say that the listener had a good idea.  Then he or she takes the compliment away with the use of the word “but”.

What are some other ways you’ve noticed that small words matter?

Keep the conversation going by tweeting @seesdsofcivility .

Graphic of CultivateThe Seeds of Civility is a blog that is created by The Wallace Centers of Iowa.  Here we cultivate conversations about civility in the workplace.

Leading With Civility: 4 Lessons for Speaking Up at Work

Visual from Seeds of Civility about Speaking UpWhen people think about civility, they often think about being kind, having manners or being nice. Civility is a path to results that leads to respect for others. But it also means respecting yourself and figuring out how to speak up.

When I first read Choosing Civility by P.M. Forni I was happy to see that the author included a chapter called Assert Yourself.

Why does speaking up matter?

When you work to achieve results in an organization there are as many perspectives on the right way to do something as there are people.  To get your opinions and perspective heard you will need to be comfortable sharing them. Consider these lessons:

4 Lessons about Speaking Up at Work Graphic of Leading with Civility ; 4 Lessons for Speaking Up

1.  Silence can mean you agree 

Have you been in a meeting where people just remain silent?  The meeting might go fast but there is a danger in an organization when everyone agrees. By not saying anything or even asking any questions we give our tacit approval and one or two people lead rather than including varied perspectives in decision making.  In an emergency situation that is fine, decisions of leaders need to be made quickly.  However for longer term decisions such as developing new products, communicating customer service issues, or day to day operational concerns, each person involved need to share his or her perspective.

2.  Everyone deserves to know where they stand 

Do you have a hard time speaking up if you don’t agree with another person’s idea or approach? It is uncomfortable to criticize someone. Criticizing someone can bring up negative emotions. This brings discomfort but it is the way the human brain processes emotional information. Everyone deserves to know how you stand with them.  Even if the person doesn’t like it and doesn’t respond well, it still makes the workplace better. For help on how to do it check out a great post from Inc.com Columnist Kevin Daum who wrote How to Give (and Receive) Positive Criticism.

3.  Being consistent adds volume

The goal of speaking up is to make a difference. Being consistent is the most effective way to have your voice add up to being heard. There are a lot of competing messages so repetition is necessary.

4.  Hard work won’t make up for not speaking up

Even if you don’t see yourself as a leader, and you don’t speak up, you are hurting both yourself in your career and the organization which needs your unique perspective in order to perform optimally.

Gather 510 px squareThe Seeds of Civility is a blog that is created by The Wallace Centers of Iowa.  Here we gather tips for leading (and developing emerging leaders) with civility.

Book Review: Choosing Civility by P.M. Forni

Choosing Civility by PM Forni

How does a professor of Italian fiction and poetry end up becoming a leading expert on civility? P.M. Forni realized he wanted to teach his students to be kind human beings more than he wanted them to know about a particular poet. He took his role as a teacher seriously and started offering lectures and workshops on civility.

Forni introduces his book in this manner:

I am convinced that, to a significant extent, life is what our relationships make it. Every page of this book is imbued with this simple conviction. Good relationships make our lives good; bad relationships make our lives bad. We are usually happy (or unhappy) with others. Although at times we can be happy in spite of others, we are usually happy thanks to them, and thanks to the good relationships we have with them.

As you can see by the title, Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conductthere are rules of conduct, that Forni has determined from studying a vast body of work.  He looked at religious texts from major religions, Victorian books on manners, the works of philosophers such as Plato and Kant and more recent self-help books.

To many people, rules of conduct feel ominous, like a teacher standing over us with ruler in one hand waiting to correct our behavior.

If you dislike this didactic approach, another way to use the book is to look at the rules in the book as behaviors or skills  that are useful when it comes to building relationships with others. If you went through the rules you would probably realize that you are already applying many of these behaviors in your life. In addition, you might also be surprised by some of the rules.  For example “Give constructive criticism” is a skill or behavior that most people don’t think relates to civility.

Our intention at The Wallace Centers of Iowa is to look at the historical life of Henry A. Wallace and distill a few “seeds of civility” or practices that can be foundational to teaching leaders in the workplace. Our workshops include an opportunity for people to consider their civility strengths and then help them select a few civility practices to apply in an intentional way.