Effective Language for Consulting

Language and Consulting

There would be very few English speakers that are not familiar with the phrase “now you are speaking my language”. This phase can be an indicator of that moment when two parties are able to connect intended meaning with perceived meaning and reach alignment. Appelbaum and Steed (2005) define a consultant as being a “specially trained and qualified person who assists client organisations in an objective and independent manner to identify and analyse problems and when requested implement solutions”. They later expand on this by applying a framework that identifies the following eight tasks as key in consulting engagements:

1.       Providing Information to the Client

2.       Solving the Client’s problem

3.       Making a diagnosis, which may necessitate redefinition of the problem

4.       Making recommendations based on diagnosis

5.       Assisting with implementation of recommended actions

6.       Building consensus and commitment around a corrective action

7.       Facilitating client learning

8.       Permanently improving organizational effectiveness

Considering the opening statements surrounding language being a key facilitator of alignment, we will now explore what language is, how it is applied in organisations and how it is relevant to a consultant’s relationships and leadership approach.


Theory of Language

We all know language can take many forms including written word, verbal communication, non-verbal communication and even programmatic language between a person and a machine or machine and machine. The one thing all these applications have in common is that they act as a shared medium to communicate a thought, idea, instruction or concept from one party to another. Looking at this diagrammatically, it might look something like figure 1 below:



figure 1 - Pixshark (2018)

What’s important to understand is that intended meaning from Party A does not always equal perceived meaning of Party B. Why you ask? Pinker (2012) explains that when we look at verbal language in a bit more detail, it contains the follow the following constructs:

·       Grammar – the assembly of words

·       Semantics – the meaning of words

·       Phonology – the sound of words

·       Pragmatics – use of language in conversation

It is the reality of Party A that influences how they use these constructs to craft their language and communicate their intended meaning. Conversely it is the reality of Party B that influences how they deconstruct the language of Party A and perceive the meaning of the message. Countless factors including education, culture, environment, relationships, gender and bias all play a part in creating the reality of an individual. This directly influences the intended and perceived meanings of the language they send or receive. It’s critical that the sender of a message has the recipient in mind when deciding the language they will use to craft their message. For more detail on this, the following video from cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker is a great resource.


To dive a little deeper on the constructs above, let’s apply an example using words. When does a word become a word and have meaning? When it’s published in the Oxford Dictionary? Both Cruzan (2014) and Pinker (2012) share the view that culture creates words and publications like the dictionary are merely reactive to what culture defines as a word. This adds an interesting paradigm as culture is quite fluid and even when you look at similar cultures like Americans and Australians, you will find the semantics, phonology and pragmatics of words can differ greatly. For example, an Australian will use the word thong to describe what an American would call a flip flop. This is because in America, thong means something equivalent to G-String or Swimwear. Considering challenges like this arise with similar cultures that share a common language, you can see how even greater challenges can arise when more diverse cultures with differing languages try to translate an intended meaning into a perceived meaning. Using the Americans and the Japanese as an example, Kulkarni & Sommer (2014) observe that “yes” in Japan may mean “I understand” rather than “I will comply,” as someone from the United States may assume in a conversation. Little misunderstandings lead this can lead to larger communication breakdowns and challenges within the shared output of teams. Outside of international language, Curzan (2014) demonstrates that the meanings of words can also change over time. During her Ted Talk below, she highlights that the word “peruse” had an initial definition of “to read thoroughly”. Over time this meaning has been transformed into a brief or quick review of a document. This further supports the theory that cultures not only determine the definition of words, but can also choose evolve these definitions over time.

The summary above merely scratches the surface of some of the complexities surrounding language. Understanding the objectives of a consultant and the interdependencies between language and delivery of these objectives, we can see how having an effective language strategy is essential for success. This leads to the exploration language related challenges that consultants can encounter and some potential strategies that they can implement.


Language and Organisations

As reflected by Srivastava and Goldberg (2017) “Language is the core medium for cultivating relationships and sending explicit and implicit signals about one’s values and behaviour”. Successful businesses are built on effective communication and relationships, as consultants these are some key areas in which we should focus our energy to ensure the desired outputs and outcomes are achieved. Globalization of business has created further complexity in this area by increasing the volume of cultures and languages that are involved in daily business activities. As observed by Kulkarni and Sommer (2014) "the number of multinational organizations increased eightfold from 11,000 to 79,000 between 1976 and 2007, and employers continue to expatriate employees to various global locations". As identified earlier, different cultures draw different meaning out of language and as a result, these cultures will adopt an organisational language with differing meaning. As consultants who need to provide information to the client, we not only have to understand the organizational language, but also the sub-languages that are created by different cultures within the organization. Figure 2 below attempts to explain these intersections, in the centre we see the sweet spot which indicates the point in which common language can create shared meaning between all parties.


figure 2

To use an example, an Australian working for an organization might only adopt a sub section of the organisational language. It’s extremely unlikely that this subsection will completely overlap with the subsection adopted by a Malaysian employee of that same organisation. A consultant looking to convey shared meaning must use language from the common intersection point between all cultures and the organisation. As a further take away, when a consultant is diagnosing problems, they should be cognizant that problems between teams may simply exist because they are not using shared language.


Applying a business lens, Neeley & Kaplan (2014) state "unrestricted multinguism creates inefficiency in even the most dedicated and talented workforces. It can lead to friction in cross-boarder interactions and lost sales." They go on to explain "choosing a common language can dramatically improve how employees collaborate across boarders". Whilst some businesses have chosen to adopt such an approach to improve global performance, some of the perceived benefits are overshadowed by new challenging behaviours from employees that struggle to adopt the common language. Kulkarni & Sommer (2014) observe that uneven proficiency in English disrupted collaboration, information sharing, and interpersonal relationships among team members they go on to state non-native speakers (e.g., Germans) took more time to complete tasks, were often dominated in meetings, had reduced access to resource. Whilst language diversity can create some challenges when it comes to the operations of a global business, quick fixes like mandating a global language will not get to the heart of the issue. The quick fixes might address the language used to communicate a message, but they fail to account for the misalignment of realities referenced when the parties are involved are sending or receiving messages. Consultants need to understand the limitations of language and when they reach them, call upon other tools to ensure alignment can be reached between the sender and the receiver. Some tools that can complement language include diagrams, shared computer screens when collaborating virtually and whiteboards when engaging locally. Applying these additional tools will help to increase the level of comprehension no matter what the cultural divide. This in mind, they become more and more essential as the cultural divide expands.


Language and Relationships

In the last section, we briefly mentioned the association between language, relationships and the communication of one’s values. Pinker (2007) observes during his Ted Talk below that language is often used to broker relationships. A key driver for this brokerage is that most people choose to avoid failure and rejection. As it’s not possible to know what another person may be thinking or how they may react to a certain proposal, language is often used as a mechanism to test or probe if a certain thought or idea may be palatable. I’m sure we have all heard or used the expression, “why don’t they just say what they mean”, this very expression is a great example of the difference between literal and implicated meanings in language. It is the fact that literal and implied meaning do not always match that creates this grey area in which people can broker relationships. A good example of this may be when someone offers a bribe. A person may hold out a handful or cash and say, “buy your kids some sweets”. Whilst this literal meaning seems like an innocent and genuine offer, the implied meaning will be something to the effect of “take this money and ensure I’m awarded the contract”. The relationship brokering occurs because the sender of the message does not know if the recipient will accept their bribe, so separating the literal and implied meaning can afford the message sender plausible deniability in the event of rejection.

Whilst bribery is hopefully something you won’t encounter in your consulting practise, there are far more subtle instances of language brokering relationships that will occur throughout your professional practice. As observed by Srivastava & Goldberg (2017) “Individuals may adopt the linguistic codes of their organization while privately holding views that conflict with culture. At work they may conceal their true beliefs as they try to sound the same as their colleagues”. Being aware of this and actively having it on your radar when conversing with clients will help you unpack existing or potential problems. These problems may exist with people not being matched to team members or organizational goals. People can choose language which has a literal meaning in support of a direction, decision or colleague on the surface to avoid conflict. However, unpacking the language and looking for non-committal words like would, could, should and an absence of depth and / or time bound commitments can be cues for a different implied meaning. Often getting people outside of the office environment can trigger changes in the language they choose to use and enable a consultant to uncover implied meanings. Practical examples of this include taking someone for a coffee, a beer or a run and observing how a different environment will influence their language choices.


Language for Leading

In leadership positions it is critical that consultants not only know how to choose the appropriate language for leadership, but know how to coach their clients on the appropriate language for leading. Mayfield & Mayfield (2017) observe that motivating language, especially when used in a creativity supportive environment, can invigorate this fulfilling process.” When leading teams it’s important to ensure you use language that is both consumable and specific. Consumable refers to choosing language that is easy for everyone to understand, not just those who are closely aligned with our personal reality. Something that really helps contextualize this point is a computer performing speech to text recognition. Pinker (2012) observed that when people speak, there is no logical break in the sound, like you would see white spaces between words on paper. This was a key challenge in the development of speech recognition software as the computer couldn’t tell when one word finishes and another begins. When two parties communicate sharing a common language, their understanding of the language is what allows them to break out individual words and construct sentences. You can see how this will create comprehension challenges for people who are less familiar with the language and have a limited vocabulary. To make language more consumable, especially to people with differing accents and / or primary languages, simplify your word choices and ensure you don’t rush your word delivery. Pauses are also important, not just for yourself, but also to give your audience a logical break.

As a leader it’s good to be aware that whilst freedom and empowerment of your team is great, there is always balance. Sometimes being a little more specific with language empowers a subordinate to achieve the best results. For example, Mayfield & Mayfield (2017) state that "telling someone be creative for a party idea can be overwhelming, but asking someone to help come up with ideas for a Wizard of Oz themed anniversary party can light a spark." Whilst some people revel at the thought of creative freedom, others become completely overwhelmed and the example above provides great insight into how language that gives a directive statement more focus. This ultimately assists the intended recipient in creating an outcome aligned with the sender’s intent.


Final Thought on Language

Most consulting assignments will see consultants enter organisations with limited knowledge. An understanding of how to effectively craft language and communicate with both the client and associated stakeholders will enable them to build confidence and effectively deliver tasks within the consulting framework. When the consultant is on the receiving end of language, it’s important for them to understand the intricacies of language and how people use language in different ways to achieve a range of different outcomes. A consultant is most effective when they understand their audience and tailor their language in a way that creates the desired meaning for the recipients. When on the receiving side, the consultant needs to understand both the person and the implied meanings behind the choices of words and language. Like all skills, the more you practice, the more effective you will become at using language in your consulting engagements.



Appelbaum, S & Steed, A  2005, 'The critical success factors in the client-consulting relationship', The Journal of Management Development, vol. 24, pp. 68-72

Pixshark 2018, Communication Flow, diagram, accessed March 2018, <http://pixshark.com/communication-process-sender-receiver.htm>

Pinker, S  2012, ‘Steven Pinker: Linguistics as a Window to Understanding the Brain’, YouTube, 6 October 2012, Big Think, viewed 19 March 2018, < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q-B_ONJIEcE>

Curzan, A  2014, ‘Anne Curzan: What makes a word "real"?’, YouTube, 17 June 2014, TED, viewed 19 March 2018, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F6NU0DMjv0Y >

Kulkarni, M & Sommer, K  2014 'Language-based exclusion and prosocial behaviours in organizations', Human Resource Management, vol. 54, pp. 637-652

Srivastava S & Goldberg, A  2017 'Language as a window into culture?', California Management Review, Vol 60, pp. 56-69

Neeley, T & Kaplan, R  2014 'What’s your language strategy?', Harvard Business Review, September 2014, pp. 70-76

Pinker, S  2007, ‘Steven Pinker: What our language habits reveal’, YouTube, 11 September 2007, TED, viewed 19 March 2018, < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LjQM8PzCEY0>

Mayfield, M & Mayfield, J  2017 'Leader Talk and the Creative Spark: A Research Note on How Leader Motivating Language Use Influences Follower Creative Environment Perception', International Journal of Business Communication, Vol 54, pp. 210-225