When it comes to work, you know what qualifications to get and which skills to develop. You know which habits to cultivate. You even know how to dress for success. But did you know that the language you use can boost your career — or hold you back?
We asked executive coach, HR expert and co-founder of Accelerate Transformation Ashleigh Trahan for tips and insights about the language of success.
This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity.
Q: How does the way we use language affect how our ideas are perceived in the workplace?
Ashleigh Trahan (AT): Our language and communication style has everything to do with how our ideas are perceived in the workplace. How we communicate will impact if our ideas and projects get sponsorship. It can also capture our audience’s attention – or lose it. That being said, I think there is a lot of emerging research around how language impacts how others perceive our competence.
For example, there have been droves of conferences, training sessions and coaches dedicated to the idea that women particularly need to communicate more confidently. We should all feel empowered to speak up, share our ideas boldly and join the conversation around the table at work. However, many women learn early on that when you’re bold, you may be labelled as arrogant or bossy. So you start to adapt your language. Before sharing ideas, you might say, “I’m not expert, but …” or, “This might be a stupid idea …” to seem more humble. However, this also makes you seem less credible.
Most communication is not in what we say, but how we say it.
The way to share your ideas is to state them clearly, without any qualifications like “I feel that …” or “I think that …” So, instead of saying, “I feel that we should do it this way,” you could say, “We should do it this way,” or even, “What about doing it this way?”
Most communication is not in what we say, but how we say it. Our tone, pacing and body language impact how our words are received by others. For example, when you say, “I’d like to share some feedback” in a raised voice, fast pace and pointing at the person, the phrase has a vastly different meaning than when you say it calmly, deliberately and while making appropriate eye contact.
However, we are increasingly communicating over text, instant messaging and email, where we can’t rely on the context that can be provided by tone, pacing and body language. So, we have to use our judgement, know our email etiquette and know when to pick up the phone or have a conversation in person.
How we use language can build trust and bring us closer together. Using workplace-appropriate humour, for instance, can create a greater sense of trust and belonging, making employees more motivated and engaged at work.
Q: Should we tailor our language to specific work environments, situations or to specific people?
AT: For years, the prevailing advice that was given to women, people of colour, people with disabilities and LGBTQI+ people was that they needed to be “more confident” in how they communicate to be successful, make it into the c-suite or sit on a board of directors. But often the attempts to demonstrate confidence by speaking up and having strong opinions backfired. For example, if women speak up or ask challenging questions, they may get labelled as bossy or difficult, while that same behaviour in their male colleagues is labelled as natural leadership ability.
The onus is really on organizations to make their workplace language more inclusive. Rather than telling underrepresented folks they need to be more confident to get a seat at the table, they should be asking, “Why is this table not very diverse in the first place?” and taking meaningful action to change who gets a seat.
As an individual, aim for communicating your ideas competently rather than trying to be someone you’re not. Be well prepared and practise how you’d like to communicate your message. This is the difference between simply saying, “I want a raise” and heading into a discussion with quantifiable, objective data that supports your request for a raise.
As you practise, ask someone you trust [to] give you feedback on how your message lands, your clarity, tone, pitch and pacing. Alternatively, record yourself and see where you can improve.
Q: Is there a place for jargon at work?
AT: The corporate world has become rife with turns of phrase that we think are useful but in fact is corporate double talk that masks our true intentions in communicating with coworkers. For instance, managers who don’t allow space for differing opinions might insist that anyone who questions them should “take it offline.”
There are times when jargon or idioms can feel useful or more efficient – perhaps when there are acronyms for technical terms that your team uses on a daily basis. However, when you bring in new team members, they won’t know your shorthand. You risk making your new hire feel like an outsider and you may stall their learning curve as they try to keep up with what is going on.
Either cut the jargon so you can clearly communicate with everyone in your group, or consider coming up with a list of commonly used terms to share with new folks if your industry is rife with acronyms and technical jargon.
Q: What about language use across different generations?
AT: You may think there are vast generational differences that may arise from Boomers and Gen Zs in the workplace together, but research suggests that age-related issues in the workplace are largely perpetuated by our strongly held stereotypes about each generation. In other words, we believe the stereotypes so strongly that we act them out and in the process, we strengthen those stereotypes. It feels easier to brainstorm with folks that are similar to us and who grew up with the same value system as us, since this leads to less conflict.
The things that make for good communication in any situation make for good communication across generations.
In reality, diversity of experiences across generations can lead to better and more innovative ideas and more sustainable business strategies. Diverse groups come up with more innovative ideas.
The things that make for good communication in any situation make for good communication across generations. You want to be clear and concise and avoid jargon or slang that might not be shared by everyone in the group. Calling something “sick”, for instance, has vastly different meanings for different generations. More importantly, you want to avoid making assumptions, avoid judgement and stereotypes and seek to truly understand the perspectives of others.
Q: What about microaggressions we might be guilty of in our language use?
AT: There is a proliferation of recent studies that validate what many folks already knew through lived experience, which is that the workplace is full of language that has been deemed acceptable but in fact is a reflection of stereotypes.
It could be assuming an older employee will have a hard time picking up a new technology or it could be commenting that “You’re awfully young to be a manager!” to a new hire. More often than not though, microaggressions take the biggest toll on people of colour and those with intersectional identities. For instance, a Black woman being told, “You’re so well-spoken!” implies surprise at her competence.
Microaggressions send the message that we believe something about someone solely based on their identity. Regardless of intent, these comments harm the person on the receiving end of your communication, damage workplace relationships and make it exhausting to show up to work every day.
There are simple ways we can use language to affirm and respect the identities of others, like asking for someone’s preferred pronouns and using them, as well as avoiding biased assumptions. We can also call out microaggressions when we see them in the workplace.