In 2005 Don Watson published Weasel Words, a devastating critique of bureaucratic cliches and management jargon which prevailed at the time. Some favourites were ‘negative patient outcomes’ (deaths), ‘touch base with’ (meet someone), ‘reality check’ (the truth).
These weasel words were designed to obscure real meaning and avoid accountability for actual results. Unfortunately, Watson’s crusade was in vain, and the situation is perhaps more dire currently, than when he wrote the book.
Professor Gary Martin has written recently on the phenomenon and coined a wonderful new phrase, jargon monoxide, to describe it. The following are a small example of the jargon in our workplaces. ‘Lean in’ (commit), ‘look under the bonnet’ (examine), ‘moving forward’ (progress), ‘park a project’ (cancel), ‘right size’ (sack people) and on and on the list grows…
Unfortunately, even highly skilled negotiators are guilty of the same attempts to obscure and confuse, when they should instead be communicating with clarity and precision. Our advice for negotiators is that they should remember that more words do not create meaning - they often hide it.
I have listed some favourite phrases heard at the negotiation table and their translation:
‘To be honest’… Translation: disregard everything I said previously.
‘To be perfectly honest’… Translation: from now on I am going to be as truthful as possible.
‘To be frank/perfectly frank’… Translation: time to state the facts not platitudes.
‘Can you sharpen your pencil’… Translation: I need a better price, but I am too frightened to ask for it.
‘Can you cut me some slack’… Translation: I need a better price, but I’m too frightened to ask for it.
‘That is commercial in confidence’… Translation: Often used by government officials and can have a variety of meanings such as:
- I forgot;
- I don’t understand it myself and you certainly won’t;
- It’s too embarrassing to reveal.
(Our advice for negotiators is not to use this line unless it genuinely is commercial in confidence!)
‘This deal is transformational’… Translation: We will probably both lose our jobs.
‘This is good for both of us… Translation: This is good for us right now and might be good for you in the future.
‘Can we have your best and final offer’…Translation: There’s only two problems with this - the offer is certainly not the best and won’t be the final.
‘How can you justify your position’… Translation: Opportunity for them to be less flexible.
So the next time you’re at the negotiating table, remember this advice… Communication breakdowns often occur in high stakes negotiations, and we have an obligation to be concise and clear in our communication. Remember, your behaviour often influences the other party to reciprocate in kind. The best negotiators influence the response of the other party by modelling good behaviour themselves.