February 5, 2016

Small Words, Big Impact

“We think we know about talk - until we look.” Elizabeth Stokoe, Professor of Social Interaction, Loughborough University, UK


Would you be interested in learning about some small changes you can make to language which can have a big impact on outcomes? Recent research by conversational analysts has surfaced some interesting findings which go against the grain of what’s in typical standard training manuals regarding communication. Here are some examples:

Questions using the word ‘any’ tend towards a no response, according to Professor Elizabeth Stokoe's research. When asked “Is there anything else I can do for you today?” 50% of people who DID have something else to discuss said NO. Meaning that when you use this question, there’s the potential that 50% of people leave the conversation dissatisfied: useful if you want to close the conversation down, less so if you want the best customer experience.

“Is there something else I can help you with today?” If you ask a question using the word ‘some’, 90% of people in Stokoe’s research who DID have something else to discuss said YES and continued the conversation. Statistically that’s a big shift. A small change in language, a potentially big change in outcome.

Think of the repercussions here in the world of contact centres, consultations and the world of service, generally. The research was done in doctor’s surgeries, where typically doctors are trained to start the conversation with an open question, such as, “What can I help you with today?” and then close with, “Is there anything else I can help you with today?” because they know patients often have multiple issues. At the same time, that tactic will close the conversation down with a large number of patients. With a 10-minute time limit for a consultation this can be helpful in keeping to time, but where people do have other health concerns, it potentially results in prolonged concern and longer-term inefficiencies due to the patient needing to book a follow up appointment. Ditto in the world of contact centres.

“Would you be willing to meet with one of our people to discuss this further?”

In the world of mediation, mediators don’t take sides. Yet people seeking mediation services are generally looking for moral support, meaning they want someone who will back them up and take their side. So when mediators explain what they do (stay neutral) people enquiring about their services typically backpedal and try to get out of the conversation.

They do this by saying things like, “Oh, I don’t think the other party would be open to that.”

But when the mediator says, “But you would be willing to see two of our mediators to talk about it all,” the response is nearly always, “Yes”.

This is most likely because in a conflict scenario, if you make out that the other person isn’t willing, you will be willing as you want to show you’re the good person. (Sikveland, R.O., & Stokoe, E. (in press). Dealing with resistance in initial intake and inquiry calls to mediation: The power of ‘willing’. Conflict Resolution Quarterly).

Think of the importance of this in situations such as negotiations, sales and dealing with conflict. A small change in approach can lead to a very different outcome.

This research also transfers into the world of strategy. Research at University College, London with neonatologists caring for extremely premature babies whose lives are at risk (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/pnd) shows the impact of taking different strategies.

The doctor has to make recommendations in the best interests of the child. Where the doctor makes a recommendation on this basis, if the parents want to ask anything that doesn’t follow the doctor’s recommendation, they are immediately in conflict with the doctor, and potentially not acting in the best interests of their baby. This typically makes an already traumatic experience even worse.

Conversely, according to the research, where doctors list out options to the parents, leave them time to think and then come back with questions, this leads to a smoother conversation.

While these may be small changes in words or strategies, they can bring about big changes in outcomes. Stokoe suggests that much of what is in standard training manuals, though well intentioned, is not backed up by the latest research, showing that while we think we know about talk, when we look closely, it’s often the case that we find we’ve been wrong.

So these are some simple, small changes that are certaintly worth trying out. And if there’s something else you’d like to know about the implications of the latest in conversational analytics in the world of work, do get in touch for an informal chat. You’d be willing to do that, right? ;-)

If you’d like more interesting examples of Conversational Analysis, take a look at Elizabeth Stokoe’s talk at the Royal Institute here:


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