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.

About the author

StickyMinds is a TechWell community.

Through conferences, training, consulting, and online resources, TechWell helps you develop and deliver great software every day.