There was a leadership workshop that I attended along with about a dozen other participants where we were given a list of words such as “certainly”, “surely”, “likely”, “maybe”, “possibly” and so on.
We were then asked to put down, on a scale from 1 to 10, the probability of something being fulfilled when each of these words was used, firstly by someone else, and then by oneself.
The results were pretty interesting to me. For a start, most of us had different interpretations of what each word meant. To some, “certainly” held little credibility when used by others, while some had high expectations of fulfilment even when “maybe” was used.
But the finding that somewhat amused me most was how a few of us had completely different interpretations of the same word being used by someone else and oneself. For example, there was a guy who put a score of 8 when “surely” was used by others, but only 2 when used by himself! Talk about double standards!
What I learnt from this little activity was that people are rather inconsistent when it comes to such “probability words”, and because we all have different expectations of such words, communication becomes a problem when words such as “likely” mean one thing to Person A, and completely a different thing to Person B!
As leaders, we need to be careful with the words used in our communication so as to make our message as unambiguous as possible.
Jesus once said, “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’, ‘No’.” This is a principle that we can all adhere to. The last thing we should do is to be deliberately evasive in what we say and opening our words to various kinds of interpretation. No one wants to follow leaders who tend to weasel out of what they say.
So instead of using ambiguous words like “soon”, “a while later”, or “maybe next time”, try to be specific by stating the date or time. Even saying “by the end of the day” could create miscommunication—do you mean end of the working day, or the calendar day?
When you make your message clear to your followers, not only does this prevent miscommunication and eliminate uncertainty, it also builds up their trust in you when the things you say and do match their interpretation of the words you use.