Words are not benign: "I give 110 percent to my job."
Sorry. The going rate offered by job applicants in this competitive market is 432 percent.
Yes, I’m being facetious. After all, if one gives all one has in the course of a work day, that ambitious individual is giving 100 percent. That is all anyone has, and that is just great. Obviously, the applicant offering 110 percent is trying to make the point that he will work hard, maybe even beyond the boss’s expectations, and is trying to use what he thinks is an exciting way of saying so.
But words are not benign: They either bring two minds together in understanding what is being said, or they push those two people apart. When we reach for clichés — those well-worn, tired expressions such as just mentioned — we are, in effect, hiding who we really are and what we truly think. Not much thought goes into such an utterance, and so we distance ourselves from the intended recipient. “I’m available to my people 24/7” (I hope you’re not), “That which does not kill you makes you stronger” (really?), “We need to manage expectations” (or maybe we just shouldn’t over-promise?), and “No problem!” (this can mean almost anything) are other clichés. Not very engaging.
There are many books on communication, particularly for the world of business. So, taking on the topic in a single column must be done with a limited scope. Family systems psychologists identify three basic categories of communication styles: passive, aggressive and assertive. The one that any individual favors is often the result of the family environment experienced while growing up.
Taking them in turn: passiveness stems from the notion that others’ needs and interests are more important than one’s own. Ideas are either not expressed or are put forth timidly: “Well, who am I to say, but maybe, possibly…” or “I don’t mean to seem pushy, but…” There will be little persistence in advancing an idea. An illustration: A job application letter from such an individual (if one gets written) will likely conclude with “I hope I hear from you.” Messages delivered in such a passive manner are perceived as lacking conviction and importance.
Aggressive communication proceeds from the notion that one has greater value than the other, that his needs are more important. Rather than await his turn to speak, the aggressor rudely interrupts. Aggressive speech is characterized by statements beginning with “You,” as in “You really should do a better job of keeping a record of appointments.” And questions often begin with “Why”: “Why didn’t you return my voicemail.” Both the “you” statements and the “why” questions are likely to be experienced as an attack — as if a finger were being pointed at one’s face. More subtly, an application letter concludes with “I will contact you to set up an appointment.” (I don’t know about you, but I control what goes onto my calendar.) Persistence from an aggressive person is experienced more as haranguing than genuine interest.
Finally comes assertiveness, proceeding from the notion that both parties have value. Proposals and ideas are offered with respect for the recipient’s autonomy — he or she is free to agree, or not. Persistence is done politely, and experienced as evidence of the speaker’s conviction of the proposal’s value. The application letter ends with “In the hope of speaking with you about how I might meet the needs for this position, I will contact your office to request a meeting.”
Assertiveness has been found to be a more effective way to get ideas across and to influence others. Is there a place for aggressiveness? I submit that if you are trying to protect someone from an emotional bully, that might be most effective. A time for passivity? If the boss is really upset over a mistake you made, you’re probably better off not asserting your rights at that moment.
But most of the time, assertive speech helps bring about a win-win outcome. (Now, what was I saying about clichés…?)
Dr. Paul P. Baard is an organizational and sports psychologist with Fordham University, a former senior line executive in the television industry, and the lead author of a book on leadership and motivation. He and his wife, Veronica, a former senior HR executive of an international investment bank, head up a business consulting firm based in Campton, focusing on motivation, conflict reduction, and team building. Questions are welcomed at baardconsulting.com.