Establishing language norms is vital to a positive workplace. Outlined in the Support Your Mission blog, these language norms serve as a guide for facilitating and mediating discussion.

1.  Welcome undiscussables

Unproductive norms:
Let’s not talk about that issue. It’s not that serious.
Let’s put that off until a later date.

Productive norms:
An organization committed to its mission welcomes all topics that can impact goals, relationships, and outcomes. All views – even uncomfortable ones – should be placed on the table.

2.  Offer the most persuasive argument

Unproductive norms:
Justifying, rationalizing, and defending
Ignoring proposed alternatives to existing procedures or processes
Refusal to offer reasoning
Not acknowledging the reasoning of opposing viewpoints

Productive norms:
The best decisions are based on the most persuasive argument – not on formal authority. Employers and employees should provide reasoning behind ideas and decisions in all circumstances to ensure mutual understanding and peaceable solutions. Arguments should be based on the mission of the organization, ethical considerations, physical/mental health of clients partners, and stakeholders, relevant laws, goals, and outcomes. All other considerations should be secondary.

 3.  Avoid pejorative labeling

Unproductive norms:
Negative, divisive, too angry, and harsh tones
Anti-administration and anti-management sentiments
References to troublemakers, rabblerousers, radicals, and people who are difficult, self-righteous, or opinionated

Productive norms:
Stigmatizing people with such labels as negative and difficult is counterproductive. If an organizational issue continues to go unresolved, those who bring the issues to light might grow frustrated, and the organization will suffer. Adding pejorative labeling to the situation effectively shames people into silence, which can further undermine the community’s goals. Controlling conversations and silencing questions undermines employee and organizational growth. Employers should name pejorative labeling when they see it.

4.  State intentions

Unproductive norm:
Trust good intentions

Productive norms:
When we state our intentions directly in all circumstances rather than expect others to trust our intentions, we reduce the potential for anxiety and mistrust among partners, clients, subordinates, colleagues, and management. Leaving others to guess what we are up to often leads to unnecessary conflicts because we leave open the possibility of incorrect assumptions about our intentions.

5.  Balance inquiry and advocacy

Unproductive norms:
Immediate shutdown when opposing viewpoints are expressed
Not asking a colleague to explain his/her reasoning during discussion
Controlling conversational space to advance one’s point of view
Refusing to offer one’s thinking or reasoning
Relentless interrogating instead of genuinely inquiring

Productive norms:
Active listening is a challenging task in any organization or community. We can set a reasonable standard for harmonious discussions by balancing our need to advocate our own positions with the responsibility to ask questions about the positions of others. Of course, demonstrating curiosity and genuine interest in another’s views on a subject is not the same as relentlessly interrogating to find fault or sitting in stony silence to express disapproval.


The key to creating a positive language environment is to talk to one another in a way that is intentional and unobstructive. This approach is a departure from the common “language of complaint” towards a “language of commitment.” A community that speaks the language of commitment is one in which there are no secrets or linguistic tricks. It is one in which strategies for controlling the conversational space are set aside for those that encourage mutual trust and a sense of partnership. In such a space, all participants will happily take up the responsibility to assert their competence in good faith rather than shrink away for fear of being attacked or labeled.

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