When & How to Use The Language of Connection
Most people don’t give much thought to the specific words they use. Words just spill out automatically and are expected to accurately convey a message.
How about you?
The way you phrase things sends its own message. The words you choose, on their own, can create either a sense of connection or distance. They can communicate, “I am this, I own this, I belong,” or they can communicate, “I am not this, I do not claim this, I do not identify with this.” Without even realizing it, you may be associating with or distancing yourself from certain people, cultures, behaviors, or ideologies …. simply by the words you choose.
Are you sending the message you actually want to send? It’s so easy to communicate the opposite of what you want to convey, either from a lack of awareness, lack of commitment, or lack of confidence. But sending incongruent messages leads to misunderstandings, creates barriers, and lowers your credibility.
Don’t take communication for granted. Just because words are coming out of your mouth doesn’t mean your point is getting across. Especially in high stakes situations and important relationships, it’s worth being intentional with your words.
Sometimes, you will want to use the language of connection. Yet, it’s easy to shy away from because it can feel exposed and vulnerable. Other times, it will be better for everyone if you use the language of detachment. You don’t want to be connected to everything and everyone do you? That’s a recipe for disaster! Here are some guidelines for when and how to use the language of connection and the language of detachment.
The Language of Connection
To create connection, use words that join. First, you can take ownership of your thoughts, feelings, and experiences by using “I” statements. For example, saying, “Great job on that report” provides praise with zero personal investment. Saying, “I was impressed with your work on that report” makes it personal.
Another pronoun that conveys connection is “we.” “We” says that you and I are a unit—perhaps only for a moment in time in a very specific context, but it demonstrates that the speaker identifies with the others included in “we.” Author David Lieberman states that the use of “we” versus “she and I” or “you and I” can give clues regarding how much people like each other, how inclusive a culture is, and even the strength of a marriage.
Of course, you need boundaries. Don’t use the language of connection by default, but when you truly want to build relationships and associations. If you have good news or a big win to share, you can link it to yourself with “I” and “we” statements. If you want to give a heartfelt compliment, make it personal. Or if you’re receiving a compliment, instead of dismissing or downplaying it, say, “I appreciate that.” To create a team or company culture, be sure to use “us” and “we” instead of “the team” or “the company” when it makes sense. If you’re seeking collaboration and want involvement from others, make your language more personal. This simple shift builds relationships and belonging.
One caveat: “we” can also be used as a way to depersonalize “I.” If your comment comes from you specifically, own it and make it specific. Say “I.” If you’re trying to create a group identity, use “we.”
With your words of connection, make eye contact. As with any other nonverbal skill, you don’t want to make eye contact 100% of the time. But because eye contact is a powerful indicator of who or what you want to engage with, when you’re trying to connect, be sure to make some eye contact, too.
If you want to identify with an idea and claim it as your own, or you want to invite engagement and build rapport with a person or group, use the language of connection along with some eye contact.
The Language of Detachment
To create distance, use words that separate. Why on earth might you want to do that? The #1 reason is to provide safety—safety for yourself and safety for your audience. When you have something negative, difficult, or emotionally charged to discuss, it’s best to stay focused on the issue and not drag the relationship into the middle of it. Even if you don’t care about the relationship—let’s say you’re disputing a charge with a merchant you’ll likely never see again—making things personal immediately escalates the situation. All of a sudden, there’s much more on the line. People quickly become more emotional and less rational. Unless you’re a bully who likes to use this to your advantage (and I sure hope you’re not because that’s emotional abuse), separating your identity, feelings, and relationship from the matter at hand in difficult situations will always make the interaction more productive and less stressful.
Here are a few other times you may want to create a separation between yourself and your audience or subject:
- You’re focused on the issue and simply don’t have time to delve into relationship-land.
- The audience needs you to be the leader, authority, or expert.
- It’s not your message; you’re only the messenger.
Instead of using “I” or “we,” use third person and neutral language. Keep yourself and the relationship out of it. For example:
- Instead of, “I don’t have time to talk,” say, “There isn’t time to talk.”
- Instead of, “We need to do this” or “I need you to do this,” say, “Here’s what needs to be done.”
- Instead of, “I have bad news,” say, “Here’s what you need to know.”
Eye contact (or lack thereof) can also play a role in these interactions. By finding something else to look at—a spreadsheet, a screen, a doorway, a report, a clock—you signal that your focus is on the issue, not the relationship. You can detach. (Note: It’s important to have something else to look at; otherwise, avoiding eye contact can look like a lack of confidence.)
Anytime you don’t want to identify with an idea and claim it as your own, or you don’t want to invite engagement with a person or group, use the language of detachment and find a creative way to avoid eye contact.
These simple shifts make a big impact on the listener. They may not consciously notice, but they will feel either included or protected (separate) based on the words you use. It requires some attention to be purposeful, but these little words send a strong message. Use them purposefully for powerful communication.