The hidden power of language in critical situations
We know that language matters, but when we asked 150 crisis communication experts what to call critical situations if we stopped talking about them as ‘crises’ the silence was loud.
To get a feel for what that looks like and the impact it has in practice we ran an experiment. In our latest workshop we wanted to highlight to what extent the statement “how we say something shapes how we think and act” applies to crisis.
We simulated a scenario where two groups received similar memos from a fictional CEO, asking for a statement to shareholders under time pressure - Group A got a memo with the focus on crisis and danger, while Group B’s focused on opportunity. Both were based on the same underlying facts.
The fundamental differences in response were striking. Here are our findings!
1. Intent. Group A’s statement had a clear intent; to build trust and confidence. In its language it focused strongly on assurances, empathy in seeing the audiences in their different needs, and on creating an inclusive tone despite being clear it was too early to act at that stage. Group B’s intent meanwhile was to show readiness to actually turn the tables and make the best out of this situation. The group used clear action-focused statements with the aim to confirm the trust they felt was placed in them through the original memo.
2. Content & Structure. Group B stated a number of actions and measures they were planning to implement by using a clear and factual description of what these would be. Group A’s sub-tone was that the aim was to get more information before a clear strategy could be laid out, feeding into the creation of trust.
3. Need for information. When reading the two statements it was clear the groups had a very different perspective on the information available to them. Group A clearly acknowledged the need for more information before being able to determine the correct steps to take, while group B, in the same position, yet boosted with confidence and reassurance from the memo they had received, sent out the clear message that there must not be worry and that they were ready to turn the tables and come out of this situation stronger and in a better position. They had taken a proactive role in facing the situation, while group A, seemingly tamed by a more cautious and not so strongly encouraging initial memo did not feel to be in the right place yet to make those statements whilst not knowing enough details at that stage.
4. Focus. This was a key differentiator. Group A’s memo emphasised the bigger picture, the complexity of the situation and implied there were many factors at play. The focus was on the overall system and read explanatory and descriptive. Group B on the other hand focused almost exclusively on their own position. Beyond the first sentence, there was no mentioning of the wider context of this challenging situation. This reads dynamic and active.
5. Emotions/Tone. Reading both statements triggers very different emotional responses. In one the tone is calming and inclusive, leading to almost a soothing effect (Group A) and trying to counterbalance the emotions and tone for their initial memo, whilst the other is energetic and promotes activity through its factual tone. You have the feeling things have already started rolling and it is time to jump on the train.
This short comparison is not intended to qualify which response is better but heads out to show how strongly language influences our perspectives and actions. The two initial memos were intended to portray the same reality using different language. The difference and impact on the response and feelings around it were significant.
5 key take aways for practical use:
1. Avoid messaging about the context and focus on the scope of influence. A strong focus on the context leads to insecurity and uncertainty over responsibility because the team or individuals cannot grasp their tasks as they lie outside their scope of influence. A focus on the latter leads to empowerment and a feeling of control, which triggers a confidence boost in thinking differently when responding to a crisis.
2. Beware of how messages are phrased, both the ones you receive and the ones you send. Get different perspectives on how the message is read and perceived. Making it explicit helps to identify the sub-tone, which is the first enabler to changing it.
3. Be honest, yet give your messages positive twists. Communicating confidence and trust to your team and organisation encourages a more open mindset; however, a key point for every crisis is to be honest about the situation.
4. Positive language helps you own the critical situation and save time and resouces. The two groups seemingly started on different levels in their crisis response, while actually being in the exact same situation. A negative narrative forces you to first overcome that in order to think solution- and opportunity-focused.
5. Avoid expectations by taking yourself into the equation. There might not be a difference, however, expectations can be toxic and limiting through putting pressure on the team. Also, trust does not have to be communicated as in “I trust you.”, which is not necessarily always an encouraging statement, but can be perceived as putting pressure on the other person/group depending on their interpretation. It can be more subtle to take yourself into the statement “We are in the perfect position to seize this opportunity.”
Language is a key factor in dealing with critical situations, difficult decisions, and finding creative solutions in challenging moments. It can be a superpower that lies between reacting to and controlling a crisis.
At The Crisis Compass we approach dealing with crises from a different angle and work with alternative ways of thinking and finding solutions, including looking at the role and impact of language.
If you’d like to learn more or talk to us about running a scenario with your team, get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org – we’d love to hear from you!