Words matter

Kathryn Crawford Saxer Career Transition

“Words matter,” I tell my career coaching clients.

Case in point: the networking conversation. Ideally, you want to transform that nice, friendly chat into a career opportunity.

“You need two things from the person you’re networking with,” I tell my clients. “You need ideas, and you need introductions to people you don’t know.” (I wrote about stumbling onto ideas in last week’s column.)

How you ask for those introductions could make a difference in your career/job transition.

Imagine you’re in the middle of an interesting and enlightening networking meeting. You feel like you’ve connected with this other person, and you have some new ideas to explore. But you haven’t a clue whom to speak with next.

In short, you need introductions to this person’s network of professional contacts. How you frame that request matters.

“This is not a yes or no question,” I tell my clients. “It’s not: ‘Do you know anyone?’ It’s too easy to brush you off with a ‘Nah, sorry, can’t think of anyone.’”

Instead, you can be more intentional and nuanced with your words. This sounds like: “Whom do you know who could help me explore these next steps in my career?”

I like how there’s a quiet, implied flattery in the question, as in “Whom do you know, you very important, well-connected person? Of course you know people who are as valuable and generous as you!”

All by the simple switch from “Do you know …?” to “Whom do you know …?”

What’s the evidence this makes any difference at all? Research on the words of crisis negotiators indicates that even a small change in language affects the outcomes of fraught interactions.

Language researchers in England found that crisis negotiators often use the word “talk” to begin a conversation, as in: “Can we talk about how you are?” according to a recent BBC report on a 2019 paper that appeared in “Applied Linguistics.”

You might think “talk” is an engaging word, but the article says it’s the opposite.

“Persons in crisis resist the request to talk because cultural idioms encourage us to put little value on ‘talk,’” according to the BBC article. “After all, ‘talk is cheap’ and ‘talking the talk’ is less meaningful than ‘walking the walk.’”

But get this: You get a different outcome if you change “talk” to “speak.”

“In real conversations between a negotiator and person in crisis, when the negotiator says ‘speak’ (“I wanna come down and I wanna speak to you …”) they get their desired response.”

If it helps in crisis negotiations, I’d bet it helps in workplace negotiations. I’m never using the word “talk” again.

Another linguistic gem: “anything” versus “something.”

A 2007 study compared one group of doctors who asked their patients, “Is there anything else you want to address in the visit today?” with a second group who asked, “Is there something else you want to address in the visit today?” A third group acted as a control and said nothing to solicit additional concerns from their patients.

According to the BBC article, “anything” was as effective at soliciting extra concerns as saying nothing at all: 53% of patients mentioned their additional concern. But 90% of patients who were asked if there was “something” else raised additional concerns about their health with their doctors.

“Any-” has a closing-down function, the BBC article surmised. “It tends to be used as a token gesture.”

When you’re exploring and looking for ideas, ask the “something” question, I tell my clients. This sounds like: “What is something else I should be thinking about as I explore my next steps in my career?”

Words matter. Whether you’re in the middle of a networking meeting or a crisis negotiation.

First published in The Seattle Times. Read my archive of Seattle Times Explore columns.