Words matter


“A large percentage of our employees are technical professionals in engineering and associated disciplines. We have a project management work environment that demands coordination and collaboration. While we do an adequate job most of the time in working together, I feel like there is a lot of room for improvement. Could you offer some basic suggestions for improving the communication aspects of a technical work environment? What can I do to encourage the employees to develop their skills in this area in addition to their technical capabilities?”


What you describe pertains to the “human operating system” of the organization. This is the part of the internal environment that has to do with variables such as culture, leadership, diversity, teamwork, conflict resolution, problem solving, decision-making, etc. The other component of the internal environment is the “technical operating system,” encompassing variables such as tools, technology, processes, and resources.

People still occupy many work processes (they haven’t yet been made entirely unnecessary or obsolete). Work processes output goods, products, and services. These are sold to other people called “customers.” And, in the final analysis, it is the relationship with the customers that drives the company’s bottom line.

So, there is a strong business case for turning attention to soft issues like communication.

Cast in the light of the “three P’s” of the internal business environment (i.e., purpose, partnership, and process), communication is the “glue” that holds the organization together. Work settings that take care of the “partnership” element recognize that effective communication is an important factor to creating a high performance workplace.

In basic terms, there are four ways to communicate: (1) speaking, (2) reading, (3) writing, and (4) listening. You might be surprised to find out that the percentage of time most workers spend in each mode breaks down as follows:

  • Listening: 53 percent
  • Reading: 17 percent
  • Speaking: 16 percent
  • Writing: 14 percent

Language is at the heart of communication. Language is a set of signals we use to communicate our own message and interpret the meaning of other messages. Language is the medium by which we deliver communication messages. Our use of language during delivery can make or break the message.

Although our content may be accurate, our message is only as good as its ability to attract the attention of and create understanding in the listener via the language used. Think of the implications of this when you’re trying to convey information about a process to a very shy or intimidated employee. How are you going to break through that kind of barrier? You hired the individual, so you must have seen potential. How will you help them succeed?

The languages of communication are (and the percentage of the message conveyed):

  • Verbal language: words, 7 percent
  • Vocal language: voice characteristics, 38 percent
  • Nonverbal language: body language, 55 percent

Although words account for only 7 percent of the meaning in our messages, they can be very powerful. They can help, harm, disgust, charm, discourage, and encourage people. They cause both positive and negative physical, mental, and emotional reactions in the people they touch. The words we choose when working with employees, customers, etc. will affect the listener’s understanding and reaction to our messages.

Wording does matter. A spoken word may have one meaning to one person and an entirely different meaning to another person. Think of some of the slang different generations of people use. Separate people by a decade or two and that slang has different meaning and sound (i.e., harshness) to our ears (e.g., referring to a group of individuals comprised of both men and women as “you guys”).

Words have two categories of meaning:

  • Denotative: The word’s dictionary definition.
  • Connotative: The word’s emotional impact.

The denotative meaning of a word is its dictionary definition. One word may have several dictionary definitions. In fact, the 500 most commonly used words have more than 14,000 definitions.

All communication misunderstandings cannot be solved by a world full of dictionary buffs. Words also have a connotative meaning. The connotative meaning is the word’s emotional impact, attached to the word by people. Emotional attachments can alter the meaning of words and lead to miscommunication.

Some words have a greater emotional impact on people than other words. The effect may be either: (1) negative – diminishing the person’s desire to listen and cooperate; or (2) positive – enhancing the person’s desire to listen and cooperate.

Understanding how words affect our own emotions can provide insight into how words affect others’ emotions. This awareness can guide us to select the right words to use and help us manage our reactions to the words of others. Further, we can ask colleagues about their responses to certain words we use, rather than assuming how they are responding.

Words that carry an emotional impact are referred to as “charged” words. If the emotion is positive, it carries a “positive charge,” if the emotion is negative, it carries a “negative charge.” A word may be recharged another way, as a result of the situation.

Examples of positively charged words include: please, appreciate, understand, together, great, thank you, the listener’s name, and we). Examples of negatively-charged words include: should, hey, sweetie, never, must, buddy, have to, honey, dear, son, girl, stupid, Shhh!, pushy, and always.

While we can easily take these things for granted or pass them off as “common sense,” effective communication, like effective project management, takes hard work. Honing the human operating system of the organization is, in many ways, a more daunting task that augmenting the technical operating system.

Get our email updates