"It's not what you tell them...it's what they hear." (Red Auerbach)
I was in a meeting last week where we discussed a high-visibility project that may be in trouble. I say "may be", because sub-teams on the project are reporting conflicting status. A development sub-team is raising red flags and reporting progress is behind schedule. A testing team is concerned at slow progress and the current project plan is not available for review. However, the project manager confirmed that progress is on track and is concerned that reports of schedule slippage cause unwarranted rumors.
The project and the status is not important. I use this example to point out that you need to pay attention to the words you use and the only way to fully appreciate what someone else hears is to get feedback from an unbiased observer, such as your professional coach. It is not what you tell them that is important, it's what they hear.
In the meeting, language such as the following was used and shows that project managers have the ability to choose language that can ignite a bonfire or quell a storm.
1. "You should never have sent that email with unconfirmed status". What people on the call heard was "I am hiding something and don't want anyone to know about it".
2. "You should have told me as soon as you heard that this project is at risk". People on the call heard "I am a control freak and don't have faith in my project team."
3. "I want to be on copy for all correspondence going forward". People on the call heard "I have nothing better to do with my time than review your emails, and watch you."
4. "You did the right thing by voicing your concerns about this status". People heard "I consider myself to be the judge of you and determine what is right and wrong."
Personal attacks and finger pointing throughout the call inflamed tempers and did nothing to find a solution. In contrast, if the words had been focused on the problem and a solution, no-one would have felt angry or resentful for raising concerns about project status.
The rule of thumb for project managers is "Stick to the business. As soon as you make it personal and say things like "You should not ... " or "Joe always does X..." then you are losing focus and probably making enemies.
A second learning point is the ratio of statements made versus questions asked. When you ask open ended questions such as "How did you hear about this status?", instead of statements "You should not report this status", you will make more progress towards a solution. Take note of how many statements you make in conversation, versus the number of questions you ask. Ask more questions to become wiser.
I observe that most project managers are not aware of their language choices and cannot understand why every encounter becomes hostile. The fastest way to see your shortcoming in oral communications is to invest some money in your career and hire a professional coach to listen in on a few calls and point out the inflammatory language. This is one area where you can't hear what others hear and you need an outsider's perspective.