The Many Dangers Of Saying What You Think People Want To Hear


Kirk Livingston

December 17, 2014

Insider language is an easy game to play, and it comes naturally to all of us: learn a few key words, pick them up in conversation, overhear them in the hallway—whatever you have to do. Then trot those words out at the right time (for instance, during coffee with the boss), and you start to move toward the power center.

It’s an office game for many of us, but we picked it up much earlier, in our first years of school, or with our family. Keywords dropped at key times. And we’re on our way to becoming a player.

But there is a problem with becoming good at this game of insider language: It doesn’t serve us well when and if we are in power.

That’s because by the time we’ve arrived to our own raised platform, we have surrounded ourselves with others all speaking the same language, asking the same questions, spouting the same timeworn answers. And so we talk ourselves into a cul-de-sac when what we really need is an expressway out.

Insider language is an insidious danger: while it moves you toward the center, and signals you as a trusted player, a resource, and a contributing member of the team, it does not set you up for the end game. And the end game is—in the case of every institution and organization on the face of the Earth—how to grow beyond the core. And that always starts with questioning the usual answers and asking questions dreamed of only by outsiders and people on the edge.

There is a problem with becoming good at this game of insider language: It doesn’t serve us well when and if we are in power.

In fact, there are two dangers attached to insider language. The first danger is that while many people moving toward the center use the insider language, not so many actually understand it. If you stopped and asked for definitions, you would harvest many different thoughts. Some of those thoughts will be valiant attempts. But that is always a danger of buzzwords—which are chief culprits for insider language—they resist clear definition.

The second danger—an even bigger problem—is the use of language to play the game of giving someone (say, a boss) what she or he wants. It is a game that looks very much like agreeing with the right people and ignoring the wrong people.

Let Me Obscure That For You

The buzzwords and jargon we use to fill up the space between us as at work actually lead more toward misunderstanding than understanding. That’s because as we are climbing we use words as weapons to subdue others and show them that we will not be cowed by the grasp of a topic. Continued use, say, over the course of a lifetime, conditions us to expect language is the primary tool for achieving our own ends. And so we steep in dark arts of manipulation rather than the sanctified disciplines of sharing and collaborating and generally playing well with others. And that is precisely where it gets difficult later. Because at some point we need to move from manipulation to clarity. Especially if we aspire to a leadership position.

Clarity Is The Long Game

The beguiling game of insider language is all built on a chassis of language that manipulates those around you. But that game does not lead to where most of us want to go—not really. If you have any sense of care for the work itself or the work of collaboration, if you are preparing for leadership, let language lead you there. Incorporate clarity and questions from the edge as soon as possible and see where it leads.

Bottom line: Go for connection rather than managing up.

Kirk Livingston is a copywriter and writer based in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is author of the forthcoming ListenTalk: When is Conversation an Act of God? (iUniverse: 2015) and has also published in a number of newspapers, magazines, and online. Livingston writes about the intersection of work, faith, and communication at conversation is an engine.

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