NNBA Featured Expert
The Power of Language for Effective Performance Development
By Randy Keirn, MPA, BSN, RN, EFO, EMT-P, CSP®
The emergency room doctor told the nurse to be careful and not stick herself with the needle because the patient had an infectious disease. As he spoke those words, I remember thinking, “you just stuck her!” Moments later, as predicted, she stuck herself with the needle.
Let me ask you this, “Who in their right mind would stick themselves with a needle that has blood from a patient with a known infectious disease?” Your answer may be obvious…”not me”, but you could have been susceptible to doing the same thing the nurse did because of the language the doctor used.
I want to be clear that I am confident that the doctor had the best of intentions and was truly trying to look out for her, but unfortunately the power of his language was greater than his intentions. We are fortunate that we have come a long way with technology to minimize needle sticks, but the language that helped shape that action that day is still prevalent.
As leaders, we need to understand how our words impact others. We also need to listen for what others are saying. This is probably not the first time you are hearing this, but I want to provide you with a new strategy option on how to better understand the potential impact of the words we say and our reactions to the words we hear.
Red, White, and Blue language
At the time of the needle stick incident, I happen to be coaching my son’s baseball team and used that time to better understand the impact of the words we use. The first realization was the impact of don’t and not language. “Don’t take too big of a lead off the bag or you will get thrown out”, “don’t swing at the high pitch”, and “don’t miss the ball” were phrases commonly used by both myself and the other coaches. Almost without fail, the kids would end up doing the very act that they were just told not to do just like the nurse that was told not to stick herself.
It has been said that we think in pictures, which helps explain why telling someone to not see a picture that is already being imagined in their mind will not work. Let’s put this theory to practice. DON’T think of a hippopotamus wearing a pink tutu and happily dancing on a beach. Did you see it? But wait, I told you NOT to imagine that image.
Since I wanted to STOP using the words don’t and not as a coach and leader, I refer to them as RED Language. In addition to the negative effects these words can have, don’t and not language fails to indicate what we really want.
So the first challenge is to recognize and understand the impact of don’t and not, the second challenge is to limit its use, and the third challenge is to use other language that indicates what we want. After working with thousands of leaders, I can tell you this can be more difficult than you think.
When leaders begin to shift towards eliminating red language and attempt to communicate what they want, most begin by providing statements that include words that are vague and often open to interpretation. For example, what does, “we want you to be a team player” mean to you? We may have similar definitions for ‘team player’, but the actions required to be one would vary greatly. This type of language is vague and I think of it as having no color so I refer to is as WHITE Language.
When dealing with performance issues (such as conflict management), I feel that it is critical to create a plan with the other person that defines the specific behaviors that must be followed to create the outcome that we seek. Please note these two important points in the previous sentence. Create a plan ‘with’ and not for. The second important point is to identify the specific observable behaviors. I refer to this as BLUE Language.
We create a plan ‘with’ them because we don’t want to be told what to do and neither do they. By coaching them and asking for their input, they are much more likely to commit to what is being agreed to. If they truly commit to what they said they will do, they are more likely to have success and it naturally lends itself to higher level of accountability. Leaders who try to hold others accountable (which is external) without real commitment (which is internal) will have a difficult time being successful.
It is not natural for those you are coaching to go to blue language so you will need to ask them questions to help guide them. If what they are describing is not on the behavioral level, ask them, “What would I actually see you doing?” It is important to identify all of the behaviors needed to create a plan that you both believe in and will produce the desired outcome you previously identified.
A plan with blue language avoids any confusion as to what needs to be done. When the behavior is observed, please acknowledge them for it. Positive, immediate, and certain feedback has been proven to positively impact behavioral change and will increase your chances of seeing it again. On the flip side, if they are not following the plan, it is easy to identify the missing behaviors and provides a good opportunity for additional coaching or discipline for non-compliance.
Developing a conflict management plan using Blue language
Using the scenario below, we will explore how to develop a conflict management plan using blue language.
It was brought to your attention that Pat just received a complaint that he was rude to Mrs. Smith, who is someone that visits your facility frequently and has a history of being demanding at times. After looking into the situation, you are confident that Pat did act unprofessional and ask to speak to him.
Here is your conversation…
You: Pat, it was brought to my attention that you were rude to Mrs. Smith earlier today.
Pat: She is the rude one. I feel bad, but she is just so demanding that I lost my temper.
You: I can see that you are frustrated and understand that patients can be challenging at times, but your behavior towards her was unacceptable. What can we do to ensure this doesn’t happen again?
Pat: It will be difficult, but I will be nicer to Mrs. Smith.
You: Please explain what you specifically plan to do the next time you have to deal with a similar situation with her or another patient.
Pat: If it happens again, I know I will need to manage my emotions and remain calm.
You: If I were there in the room with you when this happened, what would I specifically see you do?
Pat: You would see me remaining calm by taking slow deep breaths while maintaining a pleasant smile and soft tone in my voice.
With guided questions, you can identify all of the specific behaviors needed to produce the desired outcomes and by having them participate in the process it will significantly increase their commitment.
Does Red, White, and Blue language actually make a difference? From my experience training professional organizations, I have seen the enormous impact it can have. I can also share the results on my son’s baseball team. When the other coaches and I did switch to using blue language we observed that it made a significant impact on the development of our team. Coincidently, our team went on a winning streak (without a single loss) that lasted over TWO years!
Randy Keirn, MPA, BSN, RN, EFO, EMT-P, CSP® is a Master Trainer and Facilitator and one of Florida’s Leading Conflict Management experts for Nurse Leaders. Randy’s most recent program is Conflict Resolution Solution: CLEAR Rx™. Nurses leave Randy’s interactive and proven program with skills, savvy, and acumen to overcome a variety of issues and challenges at work and beyond! Attend this May 8th and receive Conflict Dynamics Profile Assessment and Development Guidebook (a $200 value). Sign up here: https://clearrx.eventbrite.com