How can we think about language as we use it in business so that we can use it more effectively?
First, let’s consider the purpose of our language acts in business. Without attempting to make an exhaustive list, we might notice that we use language to:
– make an offer (advertise, market, invite).
– negotiate and affirm agreements (form alliances, close sales).
– make requests (asking for sales, support, partnerships).
It is easy to see that we could not be in business for even one day without making offers, requests, and promises. In fact, this is one of the problems of being in business: We use language so often and so unconsciously that we do not notice whether or not we are being skillful. Indeed, until a problem shows up we may not even realize that skill is possible and needed. Notice, then, that the problems you encounter in your business (or career, or marriage, etc.) are often signals that are inviting you to enter into a more skillful conversation.
This notion of problems as invitations to greater skill is good news so long as we have a way to respond to the invitation. We need to notice enough of the structure of language that we can learn as we speak and listen, just as a golfer might watch a pro’s swing so that s/he can copy it during her/his own game.
These are the distinctions that I’ve found most helpful. Every request, offer, or promise in business or out must have all of these elements in order to be complete. What’s more, each of these elements needs to be aligned with your purpose and must be expressed in a way that connects your reality to the reality of the people with whom you communicate.
-- Speaker, the one who makes the request, offer, or promise. -- Listener, the one to whom the request, offer, or promise is made. -- Future action, what is being offered, requested, or promised. -- Time, when the future action will take place and/or be complete. -- Conditions of satisfaction. -- Presupposition of competence. Speaker and listener are presupposed to be able to follow through. -- Sincerity. Speaker and listener are presupposed to be sincere. -- Background of shared obviousness. Speaker and listener share enough mutual unspoken context that they will interpret requests, offers, promises in the same way. -- Something missing. The request, offer, or promise addresses a concern, a need, or a possibility that is not currently taken care of.
At first blush, some of these distinctions may seem obvious, even trivial. Yet how often do we make offers in business without really knowing who is listening, hoping that someone will pick up our offer and respond without taking care to make sure that they can hear or that we are speaking in the language of the ones who are likely to hear?
How often do we fail even to be speakers? “My work speaks for itself,” asserts the artist, unable to see that for most listeners a different kind of speaker must deliver the message. “I want to build my business through word-of-mouth,” declares the coach or therapist, unaware that there must be a speaker delivering the message for word-of-mouth to begin.
You are invited to review the distinctions above. Make a study of one or two that seem to you so obvious as to be marginalized in your awareness. Write the names of these “trivial” distinctions on your calendar or carry them in your wallet. See if you can notice where they might be important or missing your own speech and that of others.
Molly Gordon, MCC, is a leading figure in business coaching and personal growth coaching, writer, workshop leader, frequent presenter at live and
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