Hidden Meaning of Common Phrases

A while ago I started covering multiple aspects of negotiations as they relate to offshore outsourcing. The topic of negotiations is broad and multi-dimensional. Some of the aspects of negotiations are applicable to communications at large, to the areas where regular conversations and negotiations blend in creating just a regular business communications. In that light I’d like to touch upon a very important subject – uncovering hidden meaning of conversations.

Business traditions, common aspects of professional communications and society rituals as well as personal preferences and needs change straightforward communications to slightly encrypted information flow that if not appropriately deciphered could become misleading, deceiving and confusing. Consider a very simple example: You present a system design to java architect who reports to you and after you presentation he says – “I like your system design but IMHO it lacks integrity.” What did he just say? Well, you probably know how to translate this sentence – “Your design sucks and if you were not my boss I would fire you on a spot”.

When working for decent company as a part of trustworthy solid team verbal maces of politics give way to WISIWIG communication style. Even though we still sugarcoat bad news and follow professional standards of communications there is not much hiding of true meaning in our conversations. The situation is quite different when it comes to sales process and negotiations between not too close partners. That’s why you need to study a few techniques that give you the insider look into hidden meanings of conversations.

Let’s start with so called Red Flags, phrases that should alert you as their meaning is typically completely opposite to the face value:

IMHO – in 99% cases it means something like “I am so great you are lucky I’m even talking to you”
“Don’t Worry” – “You should start worrying right now”
“We can work out details later” – “There is so much to cover that I do not know where to start”
“That’s not a big deal” – “It’s bigger than you can possibly imagine”
“Oh, just one more thing – “… and now the real issue”

Another type of red signals typically precedes important announcements, salient points of discussion, something that changes the landscape of negotiations, balance of powers and so on. Most commonly these signals are buried in phrases such as “As you aware”, “Incidentally”, “Before I forget”, “By the way”.

A very serious red flag / warning signal comes from so called legitimizers – innocent phrases that typically are opening to statements to that are dubious, potentially deceiving or conflicting with previously made statements. Most typical examples include “Frankly, “, “Honestly speaking…”, “To tell you the truth…”

If your conversation partner or negotiations opponent wants to lay the foundations for future failure they typically use soft forms of commitment such as “I will do my best”, “I will try”, “I’ll see what I can do”. Chances are there is nothing that will be done or tried and nothing that they could do. I remember working as a developer in a car dealership where I observed first hand where those phrases were used. The salesperson would say to a client – “I understand your concerns with the price. I’ll see what I can do…” right after that s/he would stop at the managers office talk about latest sport news and then go back to the customer to deliver hard bad news – “I did my best, but that’s the rock bottom price and not even my manager can change it”

That brings us to one of the most common technique that all of us are guilty of using – using “But” and “However” to completely erase what we just said. “I understand your pain, but…”, it’s not important what comes after the “but” it means pretty much the same “I can care less”. Same in “Your ideas are interesting, however…” the continuation of the phrase is not important as it means pretty much the same “your ideas are dumb as door knob”

Sometime the erasing power of “but” is enhanced by preceding statement that in a way is also derogatory – “I never graduated from college, but…”, “I am just a country boy, however…”, “I am not that technical, but…” It could be disguised as polite approach to negotiations and maybe even taken as such. “Thank you for your opinion. Unlike you I never went to college but…” Well, there is nothing polite about the blunt disrespect portrayed by that statement.

There are several forms of misleading opening is very common to prepare the conversational partner or negotiation opponent to somewhat shady technique or request that would follow. The most commonly used approach is basic preparation “I do not mean to get personal…”, “Not to pry…”, “I just hate to tell you that…” right after you hear such opening get ready for something completely opposite, you might as well mentally translate these phrases in “Let me ask you a personal question”, “let me poke my nose in…”, “I’ll enjoy every moment of telling you …”

More sophisticated technique takes on a route of exaggeration followed by a minor request. This is very embarrassing to ask you for…”, “I need a huge favor…”, “Hope that doesn’t scare you…” the approach behind the technique is similar to Door In a Face persuasion technique where a concession appears to be minor in comparison to the initial request.

And as a final technique let me mention a “trial balloon” – a fishing technique when your negotiation opponent is trying to get you to disclose some info or evaluate your level of tolerance. Watch out for common phrases such as “I haven’t given it a lot of thoughts…”, “Just suppose we…”, “Off the top of my head…”, “What would happen if we…” I bet you heard them many times…

2 thoughts on “Hidden Meaning of Common Phrases

  1. I used to get somewhat frustrated when I moved to Asia to hear some common phrases like:

    “It should be OK” which could mean “Frankly I have no idea if it’s OK or not but I didn’t say yes so I’m covered” or indeed “that will never work but I don’t want you to lose face so I’ll make a vague positive”
    “Maybe” which generally means “I’ve no idea”

    but worst of all, before I knew better, were:

    “Yes” – this frequently meant “Well, yes, you could do that. It’s probably not the best thing you could do and/or there are probably some other things you should consider but haven’t”
    “No” – which sometimes meant “absolutely not” and sometimes meant “I can’t be bothered dealing with this so I’ll just say no” or “I might have to actually take a decision here so even though I could say yes, I’ll say no to be on the safe side”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s