All Words Are Not Equal: Know What Someone is Truly Saying

‘Don’t Run’, Shouts my Dad, Seeing That His Son is About to Break Into a Stride.

I am 6 years old. Me, Mum, and Dad, have just come back from the weekly Saturday food shop. We’re unloading the boot and like any young boy, I’d like to help. Standing at the boot Dad picks up a glass jar of orange juice (Cartons hadn’t been invented yet!). To ensure that he has my full attention he crouches down, looks me in the eye whilst still keeping his hands on the jar, next to mine, and repeats, ‘Don’t run’.

Back of a child running away
Tell a child ‘don’t run’ and the word they hear is ‘run’.

You can guess the ending of this little saga. Yep. As soon as he took his hands off of the jar and turned back to the boot to grab another large bag of shopping, you couldn’t have said Meep, meep. Roadrunner, was I. Heading up the concrete path along-side the house. I fell over – quelle surprise!

Glass, orange juice, and boy sprawled everywhere. Dad spent most of the 6 hours at A&E telling me that he had told me not to run, whilst I cried as the blood soaked through the terry towelling tea towel. The lesson, probably not running with a glass jar, for one. More than that? Knowing that not all the words we use are equal.

We All Filter

We hear what we want to hear, and we filter. There is too much ‘content’ to absorb it all and at the same rate – People speaking, road signs, texts, emails, magazines, tv, social media, etc., etc. etc. – There is too much. I was a 6-year old boy. I ran. That’s what I did. We played tag at school – I ran. In PE, we ran. Out with my mates, we ran. Hearing ‘Don’t run’ was filtered to, ‘Go on lad, give it some – run’. Like a rabbit to the greyhound.

How Does This Relate to the Workplace?

Knowing that not all words are equal can be very useful in the workplace. For knowing what someone is truly trying to say, for influencing someone to get what you want, and understanding someone’s position in a negotiation.

A colleague says, ‘I’m not precious about that presentation’. The keyword here is ‘precious’. They are absolutely precious about the presentation. Collaborating with them to adjust the presentation must be done very carefully, and with great consideration of how they feel about it.

Negotiating and you hear, ‘…about £5.80 per case…’. The keyword here is ‘about’. The person would accept a lower price than £5.80. Listen for the keywords that give away our position; about, around, and a little are most common.


Giving feedback in an appraisal the manager says, ‘It’s not that you can’t manage your time’. The keyword here is ‘can’t’. The person has heard, ‘You can’t manage your time’. Interestingly the line manager actually meant that the person can’t manage their time, but they surrounded it in other language to soften the blow.

The word Feedback spelt out in biscuits
The SBI Model is key to feedback that isn’t ambiguous

Unfortunately, it just makes the feedback ambiguous, when it needed to be more transparent. Using a formula like SBI will help you to give feedback effectively. Well worth googling ‘SBI model’ (Add MBM to that search if you’d like to read my interpretation).

Written by Darren A. Smith for The Grocer.

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