Why it pays to use their words

The new coalition government in the UK uses a different language to its predecessor. Of course, it’s still English – and it’s still packed with jargon! But according to a leaked memo, there have been subtle changes.

“Targets” have been replaced by “results”; “stakeholders” by “people”; “narrowing the gap” by “closing the gap”; “state” by “society” and so on.

According to an item on Radio 4 the memo was created to help outside agencies communicate more effectively with the government. How could it help? The implicit presupposition is that if you want to get your message across to someone, using their words rather than your own can be very valuable.

Research shows that this definitely does pay. Professor Richard Wiseman (in his brilliant book 59 Seconds) quotes a study from the University of Nijmegen in which a waitress increased her tips by 70 per cent simply by repeating the customer’s order back to them, rather than saying “okay” or “coming right up”.

How does this work? As commentator Dr Nicholas Ostler put it on the Today programme, “The way people talk is close to their soul.”

Using the other person’s words, parrot-phrasing rather than paraphrasing:

  • encourages the person to like you. Matching language sends a strong hint that you are similar, that you belong to the same group. And it’s well established that people tend to like people who they believe are like themselves.
  • helps you to build rapport and trust with the person. In repeating their words you acknowledge that you have actually heard them, that you are listening, and that you are inclined to continue the conversation.
  • retains subtle distinctions of meaning, and retains the metaphoric structure of the thought. For example, “closing the gap” contains a presupposition that the gap can vanish completely – “narrowing the gap” does not.
  • supports the person to continue speaking, expressing themselves more fully and perhaps more clearly.
  • encourages the person to think about what they have just said, and perhaps to understand their own ideas more deeply.
  • saves you the trouble of thinking of suitable paraphrases.
  • prevents the distracting and time-consuming disagreements (“That’s not quite what I meant”) which often arise over slight differences in wording.
  • conceals your lack of knowledge or understanding about a subject. It’s quite hard to make a fool of yourself it you only use the other person’s words!

5 thoughts on “Why it pays to use their words”

  1. Has someone up in those corridors of power been eavesdropping your thoughts?
    This is a great post – I listened to the radio 4 snippet after your mention – and from what you’ve said above it seems the things I noticed first up were not just sonic images. Plus of course there was stuff I missed and will go back and listen again!

    XRay listening certainly does work, and even as a methodology I find it helps get really quickly into rapport. Once there and benefitting from the cumulative effect, clients open up so readily that it enables me to be of much more use to them in terms of helping them understand their self-revelations. Often they don’t always hear what they have just said!

    Thanks also for pointing me towards ’59 seconds’, thus adding another title to my Amazon wish list.

    Best wishes, Peter

  2. waitresses increasing tips.

    One of the tips indicated by research, showed that even the most fleeting contact across a counter helped, Making flesh to flesh contact the lightest touch,humanised, and the contact brought rapport. Even the most fleeting intimacy builds relationship

    Except when we’ve become a no contact hands off divorced society?

    Perhaps the change of government rhetoric is the beginnings of recognition. Theres more to life, than talk talk and faster ways, and means to understanding each other in other deeper ways than computational methodologies

    Ways which are which are much more Clean and Integral.

  3. Katri Kytopuu

    Thinking what words to use is a great point. But I don’t think it’s about their versus our -thing. Problem is, that we have learned to use difficult/bureaucratic language to underline the fact that we are experts. Maybe we should do as Daniel Pink suggested, we should start to speak human again? We should start to use clear language instead of that jargon, that is used too much. We should use language that connects us instead of language that divides us?

  4. I noticed the other day when someone repeated my phone number to me in a different pattern how hard it was to recognise whether it had been repeated correctly. I said “zero, triple seven five, dot dot dot, pause, dot dot dot” It came back as ‘oh seven, double seven, dot dot, dot dot, dot dot’. Try it for yourself and just for fun with a friend scramble theirs back to them and watch their face.

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