The Powerful Communication Style You Should Be Using
by Jennifer Radkey
There’s a powerful method of communication operators can learn to use that promotes workplace collaboration and solves problems.
How to communicate with team members is a topic that comes up regularly in my coaching sessions with restaurant, bar, and hotel owners. Most of the concerns center around how to speak to employees when they are not following company policy; their level of service is not meeting company standards; or the quality of their work has decreased.
These are legitimate concerns when you are attempting to not only run a successful business but foster a positive work culture in your establishment.
After coaching my clients through understanding what their current style of communication looks like and how it is or is not working for them, I introduce them to a style of communication that I feel leads to the most effective overall results: the use of declarative language.
The declarative language approach was first introduced to me through a positive parenting online conference I attended. Author Linda Murphy wrote the Declarative Language Handbook, which teaches parents, caregivers, educators, and others how to communicate with children (particularly those with social learning challenges) to feel competent, connected, and understood.
As I dove into learning about this style of communication, I realized just how powerful it would be in the workplace. It is a method that can promote respect, collaboration, and empowerment. It can also, in turn, remove judgment, assumptions, hostility, and blame.
What is Declarative Language?
To answer this question, I’ll need to take you back for a quick grammar lesson.
Sentences can be categorized under four main types: declarative, interrogative, imperative, and exclamatory.
Declarative sentences are statements. These can be a statement of a fact, an observation, or a feeling. For example: “It is raining out.” “I’m going to open a new bar next month.” “Pineapple should never be on pizza.”
Interrogative sentences ask a question: “Why are you late for your shift?” “How can I make a million dollars this quarter?” “Who ever thought it was a good idea to put pineapple on pizza?”
Imperative sentences give a command. “Go clean those tables.” “Follow me.” “Pick off the pineapple from that pizza.”
Exclamatory sentences show something that we would shout or emphasize with an exclamation mark: “I made a million dollars this quarter!” “Yikes!” “Pineapple on pizza is the best ever!”
So, now that you’ve had a grammar refresher, let’s take a look at how declarative language can be a powerful method for communicating, and why the other styles may not be creating the results you want to see.
As an owner or manager, you may often find yourself falling into the use of interrogative and imperative statements. The problem with this is that both styles can stir up negative emotions in the person on the receiving end.
Interrogative statements (questions) tend to incite the fight, flight, or freeze mode. People feel put on the spot and may become defensive or anxious.
Imperative statements (commands) tend to be authoritarian in nature and have the potential to create fear and/or resentment. Employees are looking for team leaders who they can respect and turn to for guidance, not someone who is constantly telling them what to do.
Declarative language, when used to state observations, can be a way to open up discussions without defensiveness or fear. It also leaves room for facts instead of assumptions. The declarative language approach that I suggest my clients use looks something like this:
- Make an observation statement.
- Be silent.
- Actively listen.
- Actively listen.
- Proactively decide on solutions.
The easiest way to demonstrate this practice is through an example or two. First, we’ll look at an example with “Sam.”
Sam just showed up for his shift at the quick-service restaurant he works at out of uniform. His manager notices and approaches him. The declarative language approach would look something like the example below.
Manager: Hey Sam, I notice that you aren’t wearing your uniform. (Declarative observation that quietly gives time for Sam to respond.)
Sam: Yeah, sorry, I spilled coffee all down the front of my shirt on the way here and didn’t have time to go home to change.
Manager: Okay, I understand, life happens. Any ideas on how we can resolve this? (Puts power to solve the problem in Sam’s hands.)
Sam: Do you have an extra shirt I can borrow for today’s shift?
Manager: Yeah, I actually do. Great plan. Let me go grab it for you and you can use the staff washroom to get changed.
Manager: No problem. Have a great shift! See you out there.
As you can see from this exchange, the manager did not make any assumptions as to why Sam wasn’t in uniform. Instead, they demonstrated empathy and respect. By asking if Sam had any ideas for resolving the issue, the manager provided room for collaboration as a team. Further, this approach empowered Sam to take responsibility and come up with the solution.
Now, let’s look at “Lisa.”
Lisa is typically very punctual for her shift working concierge at a hotel. However, the past two weeks she has been regularly showing up 10 to 15 minutes late. Below, how the owner of the hotel would use the declarative language approach to discuss this issue with Lisa.
Owner: Hi Lisa, I’ve noticed that you have been starting your shift 10 to 15 mins late the past couple of weeks. You aren’t typically late for work. I’m curious about what’s changed. (Declarative observation; the owner then waits quietly for Lisa to respond.)
Lisa: I’m so sorry, I had to switch my child’s daycare and it’s on the other side of town. I’m struggling making it here on time with traffic.
Owner: That sounds stressful. What do you think we can do to work with this change to ensure that you can still arrive on time for your shifts?
Lisa: Would it be possible to switch my shift to a later time?
Owner: Let me look into that option for you. You are an asset to our team and I’m sure we will find a solution to this. I’ll get back to you later with some options, and you can let me know what would work best.
Lisa: Thank you so much for understanding.
In this exchange, the owner does not make assumptions as to why Lisa has been late. Rather, they show genuine curiosity as to what’s going on. Again, the owner empathizes with Lisa’s situation and then places power back into Lisa’s hands to think of a solution. The conversation ends on a positive note with gained clarity, respect, and appreciation.
Lead by Example
If you are looking to build a team of empowered individuals who can solve problems and collaborate, you need to lead by example. The use of declarative language can help you accomplish exactly that.
However, it is crucial to note that if you decide to try this method of communication, your intention needs to be positive. Declarative statements will not be as successful if your tone is sarcastic or accusing. Your approach must be casual, caring, respectful, and matter of fact.
Additionally, not every conversation will go smoothly using this method. You may receive “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure” as an answer. But for the most part, this method of communication allows for respectful discussion that acknowledges facts, promotes responsibility for one’s own actions, and decreases assumptions.
If you would like more information on how to use the declarative language approach, or would like to set up a coaching session to be coached on how to use this communication style with your team, please reach out to me!
Cheers to professional and personal well-being!