Build Confidence & Credibility

By: Tracy Peterson Turner, PhD

Irritating speech habits destroy our professional credibility. Examples of irritating speech habits are sentences that end with dangling prepositions (Where did you hang your coat at?) and conversations peppered with “ums," “uhs," “like," and other space-filler noises. We’ll be focusing here on another speech habit—one that sends a subtle message to listeners that it’s okay to abdicate responsibility.

How can a mere speech habit keep us from reflecting professionalism while causing us to abdicate responsibility? Let me demonstrate by example. In seminars I conduct around the country, I often ask a question of my clients: What physical manifestations do you personally experience when you find yourself in a tense situation? Generally, the answer to this question is phrased in the following ways:

“You get a tight throat."

“Your palms get sweaty."

“Your heart starts to race."

Now, notice the answers and how they are phrased versus the way the question was asked. In the question I asked for what you personally experience. But the people answering my question have shifted the response away from being about themselves (thus, abdicating responsibility for their feelings) by choosing to use the pronoun “you" in place of “I." This shift of focus conveys a sense of shifting responsibility because it indicates a refusal to accept what they are experiencing. In this situation, the respondents are essentially suggesting that they are speaking for me and what I experience in these situations rather than speaking for themselves.

In these situations, I realize that the respondents are not intentionally or deliberately saying they are speaking for me.

But the subtle shift in pronoun usage shifts the focus away from themselves and on to someone else. And any time we abdicate responsibility for something we're experiencing, we're damaging our professional credibility. We may unintentionally be implying to our listeners that we are refusing to accept responsibility for our actions and responses.

Yikes. You mean accepting or abdicating responsibility is that subtle? Yes, that subtle and that damaging to our credibility.

As professionals, we should be interested in how we represent ourselves in every communication situation. A slight lapse of conscious effort on our part to communicate clearly and responsibly indicates to our partners in communication that we are shifting responsibility away from ourselves.

How damaging can this truly be? Consider this: we tend to model the behaviors and patterns of those we communicate with and who we respect. We hear clearly the words they use, and we watch their body language to see if it matches the message (but that’s a different article). Those who are in communication with us do the same thing.

When asked a pointed question—such as, What physical manifestations do you personally experience when you find yourself in a tense situation?—the response we give conveys whether we’re willing to accept responsibility for our behavior and responses. If our subordinates sense that we are abdicating responsibility, they in turn may take it as acceptable behavior when they are asked challenging questions. Likewise, we never want to unintentionally send a message to our supervisors that we are attempting to avoid responsibility.

The consequences of an unguarded communication moment are enormous. Professionals who have attained high-level positions in their organizations rarely abdicate responsibility. When they do, they incur severe consequences for their actions. When we keep the larger picture—and the more costly consequences—in mind, it becomes easier to see that we can never let our guards down when it comes to communicating professionally. We must constantly be aware of how each word we choose reflects our beliefs about ourselves and our responsibility in the matters at hand.

Ensuring that we are accepting responsibility with our words as well as with our actions will help us protect our professional credibility. And there’s another advantage: we’ll be modeling the behavior we want from others, encouraging them to accept responsibility for themselves.

Copyright © 2003 Tracy Peterson Turner, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

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