Robert Charles Gallo (second from the left), former Biomedical Researcher. He is best known for his work with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), the infectious agent responsible for the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). He was the former Chief of Laboratory of Tumor Cell Biology at the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Gallo is talking with three colleagues (one woman and two men). 1980

If any of us were to create a list of necessary qualities within relationships, communication would be on the list, and probably near the top of the list. And so it is within organizations. The leader communicates the vision. The manager communicates the process. This leaves the follower to anticipate a response that will encourage and maintain the relationship.

Seem a bit overstated? Perhaps, but the opportunity always exists to bring people together, to collaborate, to support each other’s goals, and to learn from each other through the process. The behavioral patterns of our speech — not just what we say — can be the difference in engagement, performance, and outcomes. It requires a clear understanding of what it means to talk up and to be aware of the harm in talking down to people.

Talking down is the act of using condescending and disparaging language, having a belittling effect on another. It can be quite subtle. Consider the example of a group interview. In the follow-up call the candidate is told that the panel really liked him and thought he was a nice person, but another candidate had been selected.

OK, what’s wrong with that?

Realizing that likability is commonly used in the recruitment process to determine fit, the candidate is left with the impression that competency was the differentiating quality in the selection process.

That means the candidate believed that the ‘nice’ reference was not positive feedback. He thought it may have been used to cover the omission of competency. In his mind, therefore, he has been talked down to. It is probable that the caller who followed up with the interviewee was unaware that he was talking down to the candidate, but he was.

And let us not forget that 75% of all communication is non-verbal, much of which is lost in a phone call. This reinforces the need for self-awareness, knowing that body language, tone, and volume can be as potent as the words exchanged in social interactions. Body language by itself can be used to talk down. With it you can be unwelcoming, indifferent, uncomfortable, and stand-offish, all of which can be demeaning to another person.

Talking up with intent

folding chair between two menBy contrast, talking up expresses a positive message, and invites interaction. The term “positive psychology” is used to define behaviors that support healthy outcomes. Positive psychology is important in discovering how people live more meaningful lives. That translates to better strategies for correcting negative behaviors, and for increased happiness and productivity.

Positive psychology has three central footings: positive experiences, positive individual traits, and positive institutions. Is your company a positive institution?

Understanding positive institutions requires the study of strengths that foster better communities, responsibility, civility, parenting, and nurturing. It also improves work ethic, leadership, teamwork, purpose, and inclusion.

Martin Seligman identified five factors in positive psychology: positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement. The acronym PERMA is used to capture Seligman’s factors. Each of these factors is built up by talking up to people. Doing that gives them confidence in the contribution they can make in the workplace.

What your company can do about all this

Organizations that create awareness about the impact of talking up and talking down do a great good for their leaders. Those organizations create a positive environment where collaboration and innovation will grow. They create a place where leaders and followers learn how to support each other in daily tasks and with personal career goals. Knowledge of the elements of a positive workplace encourages personnel to do good, internally and externally, in representing the organization.

Do Good University can educate you on and help you implement the principles of positive psychology within your organization. And we’d love to do that.

In the meantime, be careful about talking down. Be intentional about talking up. And always do good. It’s in you!

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