Kind of. Probably. Maybe
One day last year, my then four-year-old daughter asked her mom, “does anyone have a birthday today?”
She replied yes, someone definitely has a birthday today.
“Do we know anyone that has a birthday today?” my daughter asked in response.
“I don’t think so!”
My daughter sighed. “Aww. So we probably won’t get invited to their birthday party.”
Her last line reminded me of the scene from Dumb and Dumber when Jim Carrey’s character exclaims, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance!” after being told he has a one-in-a-million shot of landing the girl of his dreams.
It also reminded me how often we use imprecise language in daily conversations — especially in our professional communications.
I paid more attention this week to what leaders said during meetings throughout the week. Here are a few phrases that I’m sure you are also accustomed to hearing:
“We should maybe look into that more.”
“Let’s kind of talk about it at the afternoon sync.”
“We probably don’t want to do that.”
These imprecise phrases aren’t fatal to an organization — we’ve all learned to work around them and interpret their true meaning. However, they do introduce ambiguity that leads to confusion that leads to less-than-ideal results.
Army aircraft manuals define their words of obligation as “shall,” “should,” and “may.” “Shall” is used for items in the manual that must be adhered to, “should” for items that are recommended, and “may” for items that are permissible. “Shall” is the only word considered a mandatory requirement.
This framework provides pilots clear guidance and expectations. The careful use of words to delineate between tasks that must be done, should be done, and can be done is a process that we may — and should — apply to communications with our teams and direct reports.
Instead of saying, “let’s kind of talk about it at the afternoon sync,” we should say, “let’s talk about it at the afternoon sync.”
Instead of saying, “we probably don’t want to do that,” why not say, “we aren’t going to do that”?
We should be firm, ensuring everyone understands what is expected of them.
But as helpful as precise language is, its opposite isn’t necessarily an indication of poor communication or weak leadership. It’s often acceptable to hedge — especially when a leader isn’t ready to commit time and resources to a problem. By using words of uncertainty, leaders can acknowledge an issue without making a decision.
Efficient verbal communication is something I still struggle with, but it’s worth pursuing perfection. Sure, I’ll never get there, but the pursuit will be beneficial.
This week, I encourage you to listen to the leaders in your organization. Listen to the hesitant words they use and think about how those words could lead to undesirable results. I bet you’ll hear at least one.
But most importantly, listen to your own communication habits and make an intentional effort to remove confusion from your speech.
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The views expressed are those of Brennan Randel and do not reflect the official position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or any government agency.