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The Power of Language and Its Impacts

(This is the second article in a series of 3).

The impacts of what and how we communicate can be very profound for others. Even by simply uttering a single word (and sometimes by not saying anything at all) or just presenting a certain look can send a strong message, whether or not the sender’s intention has been interpreted correctly.

We might look to the world of advertising to see how much emphasis is put on getting the words right for triggering desired reactions. Words such as ‘shine’, ‘dazzle’ and ‘sparkle’ may give rise to quite different emotions to, say, ‘light’ and ‘bright’. Words that convey a negative meaning may give rise to more subdued reactions than more positive ones; compare ‘frustrated’, ‘depressed’ and ‘miser- able’ for size against ‘happy’, ‘brilliant’ and ‘wow!’ Or consider what some ‘favourite’ business buzzwords do for you, such as ‘viral’, ‘value-add’ and ‘para- digm’.

Longer or multi-syllable words may often have a less spontaneous positive effect than shorter ones: a point that might be of special interest to readers whose mother tongue is English, given that it’s often said that those who prefer words with a Saxon origin tend to cut to the chase, whilst those who more readily use Norman-inherited terms tend to be more wordy.

Of course the way a message is delivered can also have a strong impact on a receiver. Similarly, the way sentences are framed can make a difference to how words are received. This isn’t just a matter of style or avoiding possible ambigu- ity in the way a message may be interpreted, but also concerns the ordering and weighting that may be put on particular words. ‘Only you seem to be saying…’ might be used to suggest that a recipient is alone in the view, whereas ‘You seem to be saying only…’ might indicate that the recipient has only one point to make on the matter, or perhaps that his or her point is a trivial one.

Even the number of times an individual uses the singular pronoun ‘I’ and exclusive words such as ‘but’ can reveal whether they are likely to be relaying their full, true story, since it’s thought that individuals who are trying to conceal something are generally not very good at coping with ‘cognitive overload’ (Dönges, 2009; Krakovsky, 2009).

Of course it’s not just what is said that impresses upon a receiver, but the often unconscious non-verbal cues we display as well. Some even suggest that we give off an invisible energy that can be detected by others, whilst some speak of people having a ‘presence’ about them.

The way we position ourselves to others, both in our posture, angle of facing and proximity to another person also communicate messages about our feelings and/or intentions towards them. Eye contact too can convey strong meaning, as can the assumptions we form about what others are thinking. These topics are discussed in greater depth in the full article.

Non-verbal communication can be very subtle in its effects. Clive, a passion- ate horseman, has experienced the thrill of ‘joining up’ with a horse, having an animal voluntarily follow him around a field without having any physical or verbal contact with them. This skill is quickly learnt by individuals who have no interest in the equine world, simply by appreciating the rules of non- verbal communication known to horses in the wild, such as the meaning of the smallest movement of the eye, positioning of the ears, body positioning and proximity.

Single words can serve to either defuse or escalate feelings and intentions, so it’s important for managers to be aware of likely hot triggers. This calls for strong emotional awareness, or a commitment to continual self-awareness, personal influence and self-control.

The eminent peace-maker Marshall B Rosenberg (2003) reminds us that in every interpersonal exchange we act as observers, in turn giving rise to feelings about what we observe, which are themselves being impacted by our core values, needs and wishes. Acknowledging these observations, feelings and needs allows a request to be made of another person that will be satisfying to the sender. But a key for building successful relationships is to do likewise when listening, to tune-in to the needs and feelings of others, appreciating the substance of their request.
The implication for managers working with parties in conflict is that they must tread carefully in how they communicate, as well as watching carefully to note how others are interacting.

Copyright material (c) Clive Johnson and Jackie Keddy 2010. Excerpted from “Managing Conflict at Work: Understanding and Resolving Conflict for Productive Working Relationships”, published by Kogan Page $39.95. Reproduced here with permission.


Clive Johnson

Clive Johnson  had a lengthy career in management consultancy, Clive now practices as a coach, consultant, and trainer. With Jackie Keddy, he is co-founder of the International Conflict Management Forum ( and The Janus Partnership (, a consultancy and training organization exclusively dedicated to workplace conflict management. He regularly speaks and… MORE >


Jackie Keddy

Jackie Keddy is a highly experienced conflict resolution practitioner. Jackie practices through her own company, Keddy Consultants, Jackie Keddy is recognised as a prominent practitioner in coaching implementation. An accomplished training facilitator, mediator and advisor, she frequently speaks at conferences and other platforms, writes and is cited in the… MORE >

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