Words can hurt
Here’s what to consider when communicating
By Gesuina Paras
In our current environment of 24-hour news cycles, social media, self-publication and quick access to various content sources, it is increasingly becoming more difficult to sift through all the information and determine whether the information you receive is true.
As a public relations professional with over 12 years of experience, and presently working for a Fortune 200 company in the highly regulated energy sector, I experience this challenge on a daily basis. It is my responsibility to help communicate with our company’s different stakeholders, including residents, opinion leaders, neighborhood organizations, nonprofits, elected officials and agencies from the local to the federal level.
Together with my coworkers, we do this indirectly through interactions with media or directly via different tools, printed materials, conversations/presentations, or social/digital media.
In my work and in my personal life, I try keep in mind that while new technology presents many benefits (such as quick dissemination of information), the benefits do not relieve us — as individuals or organizations — of the responsibility for what we write or distribute, or its consequences and impact on others.
At work, our company is held to high standards and is accountable to numerous regulatory bodies. What we need to communicate is often complex and highly technical information, and the people with whom we need to communicate are diverse. The consequences are serious and can affect many.
Thus, the task to communicate is something I take seriously, whether it is a single sentence or more. I follow principles that could help us be responsible in our communication at work. This has also helped me in considering the information I read and share with others.
Consider the audience:
We start by focusing on identifying who is the intended audience. In other words, those receiving this information. We ask ourselves, who are they? Where are they coming from? What are their concerns, agenda, biases, motivations or views? We try to understand the people with whom we are sharing information.
Determine the intent:
We ask, why do I want or need to communicate with them? What is my purpose or goal? Is it to build a relationship, promote a specific point of view, resolve conflict, correct misinformation or comply with regulations? A clear purpose focuses the communication.
We thoroughly review the content — and the sources — to determine validity. Is it true? I need to make sure that the information source is from someone who is qualified, experienced and authorized to provide the information. Especially in our quick-changing environments, it’s important to make sure information is still valid. We review material from different perspectives — what we say needs to be sound and true from technical, business and legal standpoints. We consult the experts in these areas.
Identify the best way:
Choosing the right words or images is critical to make sure we reach the person, achieve our purpose and present truthful information. We pore over every word, punctuation and image that is either included or omitted, because even just one wrong or misused word or misplaced punctuation mark can alter the meaning and shape the tone of the material, affecting the effectiveness of the communication.
For example, only one word differs between the following statements:
“I encourage you to attend” and “I want you to attend” — yet it changes the meaning and the tone entirely. Choose words carefully.
Respect the dignity of the person:
Again, we consider the person and ask, does the material unduly damage the dignity of a person? For example, in recent attempts to correct some misinformation being spread by specific individuals — an emotionally, mentally and physically arduous task — it is easy to want to attack the person to discredit their claims. However, we recognize that we have a choice in how we do it and, though more challenging, choose to adhere to higher standards of treating others although others may not treat us the same way while still achieving our purpose.
After all, contrary to the adage, “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me” — words can hurt and damage a person’s well-being. If it does, we take the time to rewrite.
This process takes time, which is contrary to the immediate need for information — driven by rapid advancements in communication technology — that is prevalent in our society. However, it is worth the time to do so and becoming more important particularly in our interpersonal communications.
I have applied this in my own relationships. With family and friends who are as diverse as the stakeholders I deal with at work, the issues can be as complex, and the same communication challenges present themselves.
Applying what I do at work has helped me; I strive to hold myself to high standards when communicating with others. For example, I correct myself mid-sentence when I realize I may not be certain of my source’s validity — or choose not share information I may have come across at all if I am uncertain. Also, I have learned to check my fiery emotion, which can lead to spitting out damaging words. I strive to refrain from “reacting” too quickly and take a moment to pause to clarify my intent and carefully choose the right words to communicate what is true and in a way that is respectful.
Whether at work or in personal interactions, I have found this process helpful because communication doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Ultimately, what we say; how we say it; what we accept as valid information and choose to share with others, impacts people and the relationships that are the foundations of our personal lives and society.
Gesuina Paras lives in Torrance, California, and works as a Community Relations Advisor, specializing in Strategic Communications for an energy company.