Translating normal thoughts into office speak
December 6, 2007 1:05 AM   Subscribe

I could use some help translating normal thoughts into office-speak and playing it cool at the office during professional negotiations and meetings.

I work with many people who have a lot of personal finesse and tact. Some have backgrounds in politics, negotiations, or media, while others are just older or wiser. I really admire some people's style. They express their opinions without being harsh or offensive, and they seem to remain calmly above the fray (or even amused by it).

I feel a bit clumsy at all this and would like to get better. To that end, what are the best tricks you've picked up for negotiations and office speak? Or can you suggest books I can read on this? Or some internal mantras to keep me on track?

Here are some examples of the type of translation I mean (I'm replacing details with silly examples) --

Someone else: Here is my idea.
Internal thought: What?? What about A, B, and C?
Actual statement: Hmm, interesting. Let's think about how that idea relates to the alphabet.

Someone else: You want to go the gym today?
Internal: The gym, blech, let's go to the movies!
External: The gym might be fun. But before we decide, I just think we should think for a minute about our priorities for the afternoon.

I have the hang of those particular examples. But there are so many other verbal strategies my co-workers use that I can't reproduce here because I haven't reverse-engineered the pattern yet. And every day I run into situations where I'm not quite sure how to say what I mean in office speak. Other people seem to express strong opinions without ever saying anything offensive or controversial. They handle delicate discussions that affect their organization's financial bottom line and reputation, in situations where their own interests are in conflict with the interests of their usual allies. How do they pull this off? What skills have you picked up to express yourself and get what you want in polite business settings?
posted by salvia to Work & Money (11 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
The people who are really well versed in "office speak" are always the first to get fired on "the apprentice". There's a chance that you're appreciated as someone who doesn't talk any crap but who just says what they think.

On the other hand, you might be worried that you really are annoying your co-workers with blunt statements, or simply offending them so that their motivation to work on a project falls.

I'm not a manager, or in any position of authority, but I really appreciate a couple of things from people when they're trying to get me to do things. Firstly, if they really do want something done, then their motivation is to help me, not to put me down for anything i've not done, or am doing badly. That can come across in the language if it's non-confrontational, and gives me plenty of "outs" to suggest ways to get something done. If your first thought is that someone's screwed something up, then that person doesn't want to hear it put to them like that. They want to make suggestions themselves about how to unscrew it.

Fundamentaly, people don't need to be spoken to in a nice and polite "office speak" manner, but they don't want to be told that they're no good. If they're so bad, then they'll be fired. until that point, they're the person who needs to do the job that you need done, so your very first motivation is that.

If you speak with a no-nonsense approach, don't appreciate boot-lickers and have no time for office politics, you'll soon be the head of a major corporation. or so i've, i'm going to go and confirm people's priorities for the hot beverage they'd like served.
posted by galactain at 1:27 AM on December 6, 2007 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I highly recommend a short course in improv. After being a communications and management consultant for seven years, this was a key training that all the people who I thought were masterful negotiators--masterful human beings--seemed to have (and has helped me immensely in my own work and non-work life). But basically, always find something to say "yes" to authentically, even if the end result of the big request is "no." Of course, done inexpertly (where it's just a technique) this sounds and works like crap and you come off like an asshole. You actually have to care enough to look for the yes, where you can meet the other person and feel committed to something together.

Also a good practice is to ask more questions about their ideas before saying 'no.' First, sometimes people are feeling under-listened-to, and asking them a few clarifying questions will make a world of difference. Second, it exposes the motivations and agendas of the idea.
"Want to go to the gym?"
"Oh right, you haven't been lately and have been looking for ways to get there." [I have been listening to you over the last few days and know this is a concern.]
"Yeah, I'm feeling pudgy and like it's just going to get worse over the holidays."
"Well, honestly? I'm not up for the gym but I've love to hang out with you and get some exercise, too. What about a long walk to the movie theater over in South Side?" [I value and enjoy time together but your idea doesn't work for me. I want to propose something that meets both of our needs because they're both important.]

Other people seem to express strong opinions without ever saying anything offensive or controversial.

I bet these are people who are committed to something bigger than the conversation they're in or the "good feelings" of the people in the conversation. They're not coming from a place of power or belittlement, but from something they really care about. That's why it's not offensive. So enough maturity to not care about politics & drama of an individual conversation, but to care more about big commitments and relationships--to keep a commitment to growing yourself and the others around you front-and-center. This one's hard to put into words, but for example, if someone proposes something I don't want to do (perhaps even something distasteful ethically, in my personal life) I don't freak out in either direction. That is, I try not to be judgmental of them (one direction) or fearful of what they'll think of me (the other direction). I look for what feels right for me and simply state it. If I feel like I'm on the spot, I say "I need some time to think about that." If I decide I don't feel comfortable with something I say, "I thought about how I might be able to do that, but I think it's just something I don't feel comfortable doing. It doesn't match with who I am." No drama, no apologies, no judgment of them. And it leaves open the possibility for a deeper conversation where they may change their minds. (Of course I have hot buttons where this behavior is just out of reach for me, but just knowing that is helpful, too).
posted by cocoagirl at 3:26 AM on December 6, 2007 [12 favorites]

Best answer: One important strategy for getting across negative opinions/reactions is to ask about them, rather then tell them. Example: Person announces a overambitious timeline with unrealistic deadlines.

Real Thought: What? Crazy. There's no way we can do the work that fast, unless we do it half-assed.

What You Say In A Meeting: Do you think that this deadline will provide sufficient time for Task A, B, C, especially since [time-consuming thing that person is disregarding?]

This gives the other person a fighting chance to be a team player. It puts you in a position of deferring to them while still giving you a forum to express your concerns. Especially if you are very junior, this is your lifeline to being able to graciously criticize statements by higher-ups.

(I learned this technique from my boss, who picked it up from our CEO, who is totally top dog, but sure knows her way around a meeting.)
posted by desuetude at 6:18 AM on December 6, 2007 [2 favorites]

I've read this book, and found it helpful in developing the skill of tact:

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss what Matters Most

Also, the whole Mars and Venus series has helpful tips on phrasing things and communication skills. This one sounds especially relevant (I've only read the first of the series myself):

Mars and Venus in the Workplace

And a work friend once was required by the higher-ups to take a Dale Carnegie course, because of his perceived rudeness and lack of tact. His communication skills were noticeably improved.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:12 AM on December 6, 2007

Never talk down to people or make snarks in a roundabout way. In a professional environment you do not want to be demeaning. When confronted with an unprofessional attitude by other coworkers, ignore it completely and simply respond to work-related issues in the conversation. Your examples are hard to decipher but the responses do seem a little on the snarky side.

Office-speak should be professional and literate. Only respond when you have something meaningful to add. Opinions can be respected but only if they are informed. Some people can get away with saying certain things because they are respected or have a position of seniority. Don't assume you can get away with the same attitude if you learn the same methods.

The best internal mantra I can suggest before you open your mouth is "Wait a sec".
posted by JJ86 at 7:38 AM on December 6, 2007

Best answer: There is some really good advice in this thread about how to think about this process!

Something that I would add on -- maybe could help to reverse-engineer and which might be similar to what cocoagirl said about "I bet these are people who are committed to something bigger than the conversation they're in":

When I have to disagree with someone at work, or get them to reconsider their position, it helps to use our shared common goals as my touchstone.

COO: So, I've decided that we're going to open six new offices in Asia and Oceania by 2009.

My brain: But... but... we're not executing 100% in our existing offices... and we don't speak any Asian languages... and we don't have the cashflow for that... and the last time you suggested some harebrained thing like this, we ended up with "Sven and the Iceland incident," we're still paying that settlement. You're such a maroon! Why are you even talking?

My mouth: An assertive APAC strategy sounds really exciting. In fact, I will volunteer to take on the unenviable task [faux solemn expression of dutiful drudge work] of visiting Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tokyo on a discovery visit [wink wink, knowing chuckles, inject a little levity. Then go to straight-talking serious face.]. I would love to start brainstorming whether we can position ourselves to enter the Asian markets. Can we take a look at what our current numbers in the Americas indicate about the distance to an APAC strategy? And then we can think about whether our current product roadmap is a good fit for Asia.
In other words, "I'm not just slamming your contribution, but I'm trying to bring you back around to looking at the idea in the context of our shared goals." Because, who can disagree with me when the implicit objections are in line with the overall corporate strategy? And, there was also the "small yes leading to the big no" in there -- "Your idea is exciting! But."

I also try to make sure it's never ever personal. This is more challenging than it seems; obviously you would never say, "That's a dumb idea and you're a really dumb person and also, you smell funny." But what do you do when you have a colleague whose personal agenda drives all their business decisions? We all do that to a small extent, of course, but there will always be the person for whom it gets in the way of good business. They filter every single business interaction through that agenda, and respond accordingly. And if you communicate in any way that touches them personally, that person will get on the defensive, and stop being productive.

So, I try to think about what motivates my co-workers, at the primary and secondary level. For some it's money, or respect. Some just really love their work and want to do it well. Another might be a total jobsworth who wants to appear to be a driven and successful team player but secretly just wants to knock off at 4:59 and get to the pub to meet his friends, where he can talk about what an awesome professional he is. Others might care about how their family is affected, or about being known as the person who always comes up with the brilliant idea. Constantly reminding myself who brings what agenda to the table at any meeting or interaction, and how that agenda will likely manifest in terms of the particular discussion, helps me respond to that person in a way that meets their needs and also drives our business forward.

I find that it also helps to think fast; I process verbal communication really quickly, which helps me formulate a poised response (but, I competed in improvisation for four years, so I would echo cocoagirl's suggestion that improv is a priceless training). I know that's not just something a person can turn on or off, but there are definitely strategies to train your brain. I think one reason that some people (not meaning you, salvia, since I have no idea) find office politics challenging is because they need time to process thoughts and ideas, and put together the response that works best for them... and it's not always conducive to do that around the conference table. (Then again, it's a quick flip of the coin, because those people usually achieve more in their email communications.)

Another technique that I use sometimes, and which I think requires practice to do successfully so people don't figure you out, is stalling. I often use a "can you elaborate" approach.
CFO: We should stop using US dollars as our corporate currency. We're going to start trading in rubles!

My brain: ....

My mouth: ...Interesting! Can you tell us more about how you envision the execution of this?

CFO: Yes! Well, first we [commence long insane idea] --

My brain: Okay, get it together, there isn't much time. Clearly the man is mad, and I know everyone in the room is thinking it too. Best course of action... don't call him insane here, but get out of the group setting and have one-on-one conversations. Ready? Break!

CFO: -- so when we inform our clients that we're switching to the ruble, they will love us and give us candy.

My mouth: Clearly you've put a lot of thought into this! I think that we should all do the same; for now, let's table this idea -- which I think we can all agree would have dramatic implications for the company and deserves more critical consideration from the stakeholders, amirite? -- and agree to revisit it on January 17.
Using a repeating technique is invaluable here, too: "To make sure I understand, your idea is that we could change what currency we presently trade in, from US dollars to Russian rubles..."

Something else that works for me because it helps me be prepared is visualization. "At tomorrow's meeting, we're going to be talking about that crazy APAC strategy again. What do I think the various positions are going to be? How will I respond to those?" Obviously you need the luxury of time for this. And you can't always read someone's mind, of course... but when you've assessed a person's agenda, it's not hard to figure out how they might respond on a particular topic.

I also try to use body language and mirroring whenever possible, which can put the other person(s) subconsciously at ease, or even communicate something that is purposefully the opposite of my words. I know there are books on this out there (can anyone recommend one?).

I think that ultimately, the more of these interactions you have, the better you get. I agree with the comment that you can't just adopt someone else's communication style whole hog -- you have to poach techniques from everywhere, and put together the one that works for you and is compatible with the persona you present at work.

Sorry for the novel. Part of my job is corporate communications which in turn makes me think a lot about how I personally communicate in a corporate setting. I really love to hear and share ideas on this topic.
posted by pineapple at 8:24 AM on December 6, 2007 [11 favorites]

Best answer: I'm a strategic communications professional and first off, this is a great question -- I hear it frequently from younger people on my team. They say, "How do you keep so measured and on point -- it's only after the meeting that I realized you were totally disagreeing with X and turning the conversation around!"

Here are some tips:

Buy some hours of executive development training. Put the fundamentals in place -- eye contact, handshake, voice control, full engagement, relaxation, body language. Have nice white teeth (but don't over-smile) and combed hair and un-bloodshot eyes.

Figure out how to depersonalize what you say to some extent. You may be rabidly experienced, passionate, right, righteous, invested -- that can translate to anxiety, fatal self-centeredness and/or untrustworthiness to people who don't know you.

Keep it short and to the point, know your facts like you know your name, underpromise, overdeliver. Steer clear of absolutes: all, everyone, never, always -- the signal inexperience.

Here's a mantra: Talk is cheap.

A lot of institutional history and project memory is brought to every meeting, particularly if you are meeting with long-term employees and/or superiors. Phrase your 'opinion' as a question, or apply a deferential qualifier (not to be "The Office" smarmy, but because you should tread lightly, deftly!) Like, "I wasn't here when John went through a similiar project with Other Company, so I might be off, but would it make sense to ...?" You will be surprised at how much you can truly learn with this gambit.

Obvious but critical: Make sure you understand what you are hearing before you try and formulate your response. Re-state in your own words what you have gleaned from what someone has just told you. This is an excellent way to drill down to consensus. Also, you will hone your ability to read different kinds of people this way -- a great boost to your professional development.

If you are confused, say so! "Wait, do you mind if we go back to Laura's point -- I'm not sure I caught that."

Do your homework and take good notes. Don't derail the meeting with questions about things you can look up later yourself, Google, or ask a sympathetic co-worker about.

After the meeting, think about the meeting dynamics. Make it a point to acknowledge someone's great comment or interesting experience, if it was genuinely noteworthy to you.

If you are one-on-one, after the meeting, recap in an email to that person, clarifying content, roles, deadlines. This is invaluable!

I could go on and on, but I'm late for a meeting!!
posted by thinkpiece at 8:40 AM on December 6, 2007 [3 favorites]

I have the reputation as an assertive straight-talker, but no one has ever even hinted that I'm rude or snarky. In fact I've often been called diplomatic. I really don't think you have to play games like "Now I am acknowledging this person's internal motivations. Now I am valuing this person's priorities." I never think like that, and I never talk in "office speak" or anything that doesn't feel natural to me.

I'm having a little trouble reverse-engineering my own "tactics," because they don't seem like tactics. It's just what works for me in my environment. If I needed to sell someone on an idea in a business environment, I'd show them, rather than just tell them. Charts and graphs and pretty pictures can make the case that action X is better than action Y.

If I disagreed with someone's proposed course of action, I'd say "I understand you want to see [blockbuster movie], but remember that's still going to be in the theatres for 3 months. [Independent film] is only going to be available through next weekend. Besides, [theater] has suspended all their discounts for [blockbuster movie], but we can get into the [independent film] matinee for half price. "

I guess my approach is to allow people to see the big picture. I'm not coming from a confrontational stance, even if I believe the person is dead wrong. If the person is so obviously wrong, then there's something that needs to be brought to their attention. I never attribute to malice what can be ascribed to ignorance. (I stole that quote from somewhere, I forget thought) "Have you thought about..." or "Don't forget [consequence x]" or "I'm just worried that [consequence y] will be an issue" are perfectly diplomatic and honest, in my opinion, without making the person feel like an idiot.

Besides your actual words, the key is your tone of voice. You want to start off in a musing, "I wonder..." tone, and if they're recalcitrant, get progressively stronger into "You know, I really think that..." and finally into a more terse "Here's why I'm concerned this about the impact on our company. [Reasons XYZ]" I mean, you don't thwack someone to get their attention if a light tap on the shoulder will work.
posted by desjardins at 8:40 AM on December 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

Most of this kind of thing is just well-crafted leading questions.

To construct them, just take one step back from the realization you want to express, and ask the question that, when answered, leads you to that realization. This allows the other person to come up with the idea themselves, and everyone is naturally more excited about ideas they came up with themselves.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 8:57 AM on December 6, 2007 [2 favorites]

Over the years, I've found that if my mind is saying something like, "This person is a complete idiot, and I cannot believe they are so stupid as to say what they just said," it does not matter what words I use, what tone of voice I use, or anything else. The message "you are an idiot" comes across to the other person, and this has never turned out well for me.

I suppose there are people who can have that type of thought in their brain and not have it somehow get communicated to the other person, but I am not one of those people.

What has worked for me, instead, is to work on changing that thought before I open my mouth.

For instance, "I wonder how the person sees the world, such that what they said is perfectly reasonable." (brain must really wonder, not just say this sarcastically...)
Or, "You know, that statement sounds like XYZ in my past, which, at the time, I thought was stupid, but later I realized I was wrong and XYZ was right."
Or, as others have said, "I wonder if that person is aware of fact X that seems to lead to a different conclusion."

Once I have changed the thought in my mind, I find that I am able to express my point of view without alienating the other person.

If I can't change the thought, I try to keep my mouth shut. If I fail at that, I usually have some fence building to do later with that person -- which usually works ok if I have a working relationship with the person.
posted by elmay at 1:44 PM on December 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, these are great so far, exactly what I was looking for!

To respond to comments like "Your examples are hard to decipher but the responses do seem a little on the snarky side," let me try to clarify, since I don't see my problem as snark, sarcasm, dismissiveness, or thinking the person is an idiot. I think it's more that I take them and their ideas too seriously. I immediately think "OMG, to do what you just suggested I would have to work around the clock!! Shoot, there go my vacation plans!" To not react defensively, I have to pause and think "this is not a done deal. I don't need to panic. I can affect what happens. He did not even suggest it would be me doing the work." Then outwardly I say, "Hmm, it would be great if that could happen. Where do you think we could get the staffing?"

And I wish the issue were that I'm being a really straight-shooter (and thanks for the charitable interpretation), but I don't think that's the case. Here's a trickier example (details changed). A group we sometimes hire or partner with on contracts wants us to tell them all the contracts we are trying to get. I'm sure they'd love to be our partner on every contract and split the contracts down the middle. The business folks here would like us to get the contracts ourselves, then negotiate with the partner about what their cut would be for the work they'd do. And... Here's where my ability to diplomatically handle situations begins to break down...

I can push back on the business people ("I hear what you're saying. At the same time, this is a very important partner and they are doing very important work on these contracts. In fact, we may be getting these contracts partially because they're going to handle the X stuff. And they've been gradually doing more work for every project, so it may be time to start thinking about a 50-50 split. I certainly want to be honest with them and treat them fairly for the work they're doing.") They listen, so I'm getting somewhere on behalf of this partner.

But the business people have about a decade more experience than I do, so when they tell me that isn't the way stuff normally goes, and that the only reason we're able to get contracts are long-term relationships we've cultivated with the client, I'm inclined to yield, at least temporarily. They are the staff we hired to know this stuff. But while I'm trying to figure this out internally, I'm not sure what to say to the outside partners. It may be that the internal people will never agree to opening up and fully involving them in our sales strategy. But I do take their concern and desire very seriously and don't want to damage the relationship. So, I evade the question by saying "we should all sit down and talk about this sometime." This is probably one example among five right now where I want to expand my ability to delicately navigate tricky issues. Since some of the details are changed, analyzing the details closely might be misleading -- I'm just trying to give another example to clarify the various skills I'm lacking. :)
posted by salvia at 3:50 PM on December 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

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