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?

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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.