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The Ripples of What We Say

Ripples on water

Within every organisation I’ve worked in, I’ve found a tension. It’s around how we talk about people when they aren’t around. Often, we have to talk about what others have said and done to keep up to speed. The important aspect is not ‘whether’ but ‘how’ we do it. Think of a recent conversation you had about someone you work with. Got a situation in mind? Good.

I’m not going to explore what’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in this piece. Rather, how can we look through the lenses of motivational drivers and complexity to consider the impact of your recent experience?

Let’s start with motivational drivers. The Self-Determination Theory explains we are born with a need for ‘relatedness’. We need to feel that we belong and are cared for. If we’re venting, usually we’re frustrated because someone has acted in a way that makes us think they don’t care. Or we don’t feel like we belong so it’s easy to criticise the boss or another division. This turns them into a common enemy to gain a sense of belonging.

Does this ring true for you from your recent experience (it does at times for me)? How could you focus on positive things that you have in common with your team? How could you show you care for the person that’s frustrated you (challenging, I know)? When we talk about others in a way that shows we care, it builds relatedness and belonging.

One simple exercise I’ve used with a few teams has increased the feeling of care and belonging.  At the beginning or close of a meeting everyone says something they respect, admire or appreciate about the person on their left. 

Now for a couple of thoughts from the angle of navigating complexity. Our workplaces are complex systems. Many people are interacting every day. While no two interactions are the same, patterns form over time. Often, they are unseen or things we don’t talk about. As people in the system, we shape the patterns of interaction whether we know it or not.  

The way we talk about others is an example of an interaction in the system. What we say could change the pattern of interactions for better or worse. How I speak about Trudy today to Dan will impact how Dan relates to Trudy next time. The pattern of interactions has changed. 

What kind of ripples did your recent conversation have for future interactions? What kind of ripples does talking about someone’s strengths and contribution have? It will never be as neat and proportional as ripples expanding outwards but the fact our words have an impact is the point. 

I’ve recently finished rereading Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’. A couple of concepts stuck with me that may help in considering what we say about other people. These tie in with the idea of unseen patterns.

1. What You See Is All There Is. We’re biased to base our decisions on what we can see, ignoring less visible factors. In your last conversation, what other factors may have been going on for the person that weren’t visible? There may be a lot more we can’t see. I’m not just referring to critical conversations here. We might praise someone for an exceptional performance. Did we acknowledge the hours of practice or the team that supported them?

2. The Remembering SelfKahneman explains that people’s impression of an experience is usually based on key moments. Rather than the whole experience. We remember the closing of a big deal. The impressive ‘mic-drop’ moment in a presentation.  Two aspects to this. First, when we consider what we say about others, are we reflecting on a couple of key moments or the whole experience?  Second, what we say about another person can become the ‘moment’ others remember about them.  Most people come to work to do good work. Let’s talk about the moments when that happened.

So, before we say something about someone else, let’s pause and consider. Consider how we want the words we say to impact future interactions. Consider whether we need to find out if there’s more going on than meets the eye. And whether we want this to be the impression of someone our listeners walk away with. What could you build on or do differently in your next conversation?

There’s so many different angles to this topic that I could go on. However, in complex environments we use rules of thumb rather than prescriptive tactics. Perhaps the simplest rule of thumb when considering what to say about someone else: be kind.

Doug Maarschalk is a facilitator and coach who guides people to sustained high performance through healthy continuous improvement. He’s worked with clients in the horticulture, banking, logistics and manufacture sectors along with local government. Read more about the Services Doug provides and the Clients he has worked with.

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