Open conversations lead to more thoughtful language

A long time ago, when working in a single physical space was more common, the company I was with moved office. They put a lot of thought into the new space, and planned it not just to be what people wanted, but to influence how they (the senior management team) wanted to influence change. As a result, there was a signficant loss of meeting rooms, and a significant gain in “sofa booths”—sofas arranged in U-shapes with short walls for a bit of soundproofing.

There were some meeting rooms, but they tended to be for eight or more people, and it was clearly inappropriate to book one of these for a one-to-one. As a result we needed to have those conversations on the not-entirely-private sofas.

Mostly that was fine, but it was sometimes challenging. Very sensitive conversations were rare, so it was reasonable to book a proper meeting room for one of those. After all, they didn’t happen very often.

But much more common was the semi-sensitive conversation: where one party needed to express some kind of grievance or unhappiness, say, or ask the other to do better. So it was pretty unavoidable to use the sofa spaces for those. This was challenging, because it was easy for passers-by to catch snippets of conversation—nothing more, but enough to cause worry about what might be heard and inferred.

So I quickly learned a lesson: think carefully about the words you use, in case they are misinterpreted by someone without the context. If I was to use a careless phrase, perhaps exaggerating what I was displeased about, and then be challenged and forced to correct myself, then I worried a passer-by would hear the exaggeration and not the correction. Getting it right first time, and not overstating things, became a habit.

I can’t say I’m perfect at this today, but it was a valuable lesson, and choosing words carefully has helped avoid unnecessary conflict. Not only that, encouraging conversations to happen more openly encourages more thoughtful language.

Perhaps the days of much office work are somewhat in the past, but even in today’s world of Slack and Teams—where others can pass by open threads of text—careful communication is still a useful tool, and still worth work at.

Photo by Wayne Truong

2 thoughts on “Open conversations lead to more thoughtful language

  1. Insightful post Nik. It leaves me feeling somewhat queasy – private conversations being overheard sounds very dystopian :)

    There are lots of threads to pull on here – like the separation of work intent from personal interaction. “Careful communication” – ‘being measured’ in what you say and how you say it – sounds very useful in a work/business context. I’ve worked in a number of environments where the relationships between people were more cordial / familial and people tended to be more off-the-cuff, perhaps better expressing who they are and how they think (for better or worse) – ‘messy’ workplaces.

    What’s your take here? Are there situations where careful communication is more important (e.g. giving negative feedback)? Are there situations where it is unsuitable?

  2. Regarding the dystopian environment, I’m quite certain that was not the intent of the organisation. Snatches of conversation being overheard was more an accidental byproduct of a (physically) open environment, certainly not a goal. But your point is understood.

    Regarding the more familial relationships, I very much like your description of them leading to “messy workplaces”. That is the consequence of people moderating their behaviour much less, and being themselves much more. The personalities will therefore be much more diverse than otherwise, and that will likely lead to more… let’s call it “drama”. It’s reasonable to argue that each organisation (and the leaders of each) will set the tone and the culture, and a more messy workplace may be a consciously accepted consequence of allowing people to be less measured and careful.

    I guess the ideal is to be able to be yourself as much as possible, but “know your audience” – if you suspect you’re going to cause upset or confusion by being your usual self in a particular situation then moderate your behaviour. Of course, the problem is that your audience is now not just the person you’re speaking to, but also the random passer-by who catches just a bit of your conversation. Perhaps there is a responsibiity on passers-by to understand they should ignore what they know or hear only partially.

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