The Power of Language: Effective Communication at Any Level


It’s common to alter your linguistic behaviors depending on whom you are interacting with—a manager versus a coworker, for example. Duncan Nisbet highlights different forms of speech and gives suggestions on which can help you make progress in various work situations.

We use different language depending on whom we are speaking to and the potential impact this may have on an interaction or situation. This article is intended as a shallow dive into two aspects of culture and their impact on linguistics within the workplace: mitigated speech and humble inquiry.

Mitigated Speech

Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea of mitigated speech in his book about success, Outliers. He defines it as “any attempt to downplay or sugarcoat the meaning of what is being said.” It results in indirect speech, especially between two people with perceived hierarchical differences, such as an employee and a superior.

Language researchers Ute Fischer and Judith Orasanu conducted studies to determine how people of different ranks communicate. They identified six degrees of mitigation:

  1. Command: “This feature will be finished by next week.”
  2. Team Obligation Statement: “We need to get this feature finished by next week.”
  3. Team Suggestion: “How about we aim to get this feature finished by next week?”
  4. Query: “Do you think we could get this feature finished by next week?”
  5. Preference: “Ideally this feature would be finished by next week.”
  6. Hint: “The marketing launch for this feature is next week.”

Here is an example to demonstrate how these degrees of mitigation might play out. Can you identify the different degrees?

Tester: “So, erm, I haven’t actually seen this new feature work in an integrated test environment with real data.”

Programmer: “You shouldn’t need to. We have showed you the code and the automated tests surrounding the code are all green. What more do you need?”

Tester: “In the last retrospective, we all agreed that new features need to be tested in an integration environment.”

Programmer: “Can we demo the feature to you on our machine?”

Tester: “I’d appreciate that, but I’d prefer to see the feature working in a —”

Programmer: “We’ve been over this. The Christmas change freeze is next week. You need to get over this or else we’ll miss the deadline.”

Product owner: “This sounds like an interesting conversation. What’s going on?”

Programmer: “We’re just wrapping up development of that new feature.”

Tester: “Which we haven’t seen in the test environment yet. We would like to see it working end to end.”

Product owner: “Yeah, good call. I’d like a demo of that feature before it goes out before I head home this evening, please.”

Programmer: “OK, we’ll get the demo set up.”

The tester started with a hint that the programmer dismissed with a query. The tester deferred to a team obligation statement, and the programmer responded with a team suggestion. It seems that the tester expressing his preference pushed the programmer to make a command. Eventually the product owner joined the conversation with a query that quickly moves up to a command in response to the disagreement between the programmer and tester.

Mitigated Speech in the Office

Mitigated speech manifests itself in the hierarchies of an organization. Be aware of the different hierarchies you are involved in, as they have an impact on what language is being used. Some examples include:

  • Job title: People higher up the chain often command more respectful speech. If your organization cares about titles, get an understanding of where you and others you work with sit in the organizational tree.
  • Age: This can go one of two ways: People can show more deference to elders, or, as in some high-tech, cutting-edge companies, age can be seen as a detriment. What is your age in comparison to the team(s) you work with?
  • Experience: It is not uncommon to speak more formally with people who have more knowledge or job experience. What is your experience in a domain or role compared to others you work with?
  • Social status: People will use different degrees of mitigation depending on the perceived social status of the person they are interacting with.
  • Cultural: Some cultures have very clear hierarchies, such as the English class system. You may not be in the culture itself, but those in the culture will be using degrees of mitigation appropriate to the situation. Be aware that these cultural hierarchies may be linked to job titles, social status, and age.
  • HiPPOs: This stands for Highest Paid Person’s Opinion, where lower paid employees may defer to the decisions of higher paid employees.

Observe how others respond to each other. What degrees of mitigated speech do they use? Whose opinion matters? Who makes a lot of noise yet seems to be sidelined or ignored?

Aim to use the correct mitigation for the appropriate situation—context is king, remember. Is the person you’re talking to likely to get your hint ? Or should you actually be making an obligation statement?

Changing a Culture

Predominantly, we use mitigated speech without realizing it; it is part of our everyday communication.

However, it is important to be aware of what degree of mitigation you are communicating at. Sometimes a situation grinds to a halt and there is a need to jump up the degrees of mitigation in order to make any progress.

For example, those ten-minute meetings that drag on for two hours while we wait for a common consensus could really do with someone “pulling rank” and making a team obligation statement, or even a command, in order to bring the meeting to a close.

Another example of the planned use of mitigated speech is that a few hints in the right ears can make more impact than a raft of commands across an open office. Ever failed to get a bug reopened during an argument in a triage meeting, only to have it reopened after calmly chatting to the project manager in the kitchen following the meeting? It may be because you were using different degrees of mitigation to different effect.

In my experience, more defensive use of mitigated speech has been used in environments where stricter hierarchies are in place. Typically these have been in command-and-control organizations.

As you work in these types of organizations, how can you help prevent the reciprocal defensive use of mitigated speech? The answer may just be humble inquiry.

Humble Inquiry

Edgar Schein’s book Humble Inquiry describes the art of having “here-and-now” humility, recognizing your own ignorance, and asking questions you don’t know the answers to, with the ultimate aim of building positive relationships between people to solve problems and execute tasks.

There are three key behaviors to consider when thinking about getting better at humble inquiry:

  1. Do less telling.
  2. Do more asking.
  3. Get better at listening to and acknowledging others.

As a tester, I find it important to get the full picture before making bold statements. I need to ask pertinent questions and actually listen to the responses in order to work out the situation.

For example, I now ask, “Is there a problem here?” as opposed to stating, “There is a problem here.” This drives me to dig deeper into the situation by asking pertinent questions.

In the introduction to Humble Inquiry, Schein writes:

It struck me that what is missing in all of these situations is a climate in which lower-level employees feel safe to bring up issues that need to be addressed, information that would reduce the likelihood of accidents, and, in health care, mistakes that harm patients. How does one produce a climate in which people will speak up, bring up information that is safety related, and even correct superiors or those of higher status when they are about to make a mistake?

I take from this passage that where defensive use of mitigated speech can be seen as a coping tool for the culture you find yourself in, humble inquiry is a mechanism for helping to change the culture so that defensive use of mitigated can be reduced.

To me, humble inquiry helps to foster that “safe-to-fail” learning environment we yearn for in the software development industry so that mitigated speech can be used more positively.

The Right Communication Style

Don’t just wait for a gap in the conversation to talk. Instead, truly listen to what is being said, and gauge your response based on whom you are talking to.

It’s important to keep your language relevant, succinct, and appropriate. Throughout your career, you will find yourself in positions where you need to use each degree of mitigation. Alongside mitigated speech, humble inquiry can help build trust and get to the bottom of problems before leaping to conclusions.

I hope this article will help you use the right communication style in any situation.

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