How to Say What you Mean at Work

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How to Say What you Mean at Work

Years ago when I worked in the corporate world, I was told by my team member that I was being disingenuous. Whilst digging a deeper hole for myself, and then trying hard to convince her that I meant what I said, I knew she was right. I was saying one thing, and meaning another. Two fateful sentences ‘I would help you if I could, but I can’t’, took me three months to clean up and were an outstanding lesson in why being genuine and saying what I mean is better.

During the everyday life of any workplace, noticing the subtle differences in language during communication is crucial. When dealing with conflict, the HR advisor is often the third party, and being in this slightly removed perceptual position can give insights the conflicted parties are not aware of in the moment.

Language is ever complex, and has many different ways of being spoken and received. There is a time and a place for all sorts of language, though particularly in conflict and to prevent conflict, it’s best to be direct and clear.

Here are three ways humans express and interpret words and body language:

Implied: Hinting at what you mean, using words that indicate though don’t actually express directly. Often implied language is physically understood.

Inferred: The way a person receives information with their view of the world attached to it. Often one may guess at the meaning because it isn’t clear.

Literal: A way of communicating (both giving and receiving) information that is direct, factual and not exaggerated. Literal is generally hard to misinterpret.

Well-regarded and trusted people tend to speak very clearly and literally, they do not leave room for misinterpretation. There are some very tangible factors to being able to say what you mean, and these include both internal and external practices.

It takes emotional insight and character to be able to stand strong and speak directly, especially with compassion and empathy.

The capacity and capability model for direct communication explains how to build the ‘saying what we mean’ muscle.

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The internal capacity refers to emotional aptitude particularly when faced with or preparing for conflict. Just as importantly, the external capability relates more so to skillsets and physical dimensions; how someone acts and their use of communication tools, rather than who they are and how they feel.


  • Environmental Factors: ensuring the right time and place is appropriate
  • Reading Signals: using sensory acuity and seeing/hearing body and voice cues
  • Language Skills: speaking clearly and using appropriate words for the situation


  • Intention: stating your intention clearly and being transparent
  • Self-Belief: working on the inner sense of belief and feeling confident
  • Courage: to speak your truth and kindly

Encouraging literal and direct communication in the workplace can support prevention of conflict. According to CPP Global Human Capital Report, 1 in 8 senior leaders say they are spending time in frequent or continual conflict. Also, employees stated that with support, 85% of them have changed the way they approach conflict over the course of their working lives; becoming more proactive and taking it less personally as a result of experience.

It is the responsibility of all leaders and HR professionals in the workplace to encourage all employees an opportunity to say what they mean. Increasingly, our workplace experiences are those of ‘smoothing over’, or avoiding issues, which only lead to added friction. Take the step to increase guidance and support genuine communication at work. The cost of not doing so is 2.1 hours of productivity per employee per week and emotional unrest.

What can you do? Use the references, the model of communication and start noticing where others are implying or inferring. Get literal, be direct and help everyone say what they mean.

This article was edited and published at AHRI HRM

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Suzanne W
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