Sabine Harnau’s top tips for talking and writing ethically
The best way to solve problems and to fight against war is through dialogue. — Malala Yousafzai
The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.
— George Bernard Shaw
“Do no harm”: the heart of conscious living
Conscious business practice is all about the 3 Ps: people, profit and planet. This concept of the ‘triple bottom line’ informs everything ethical companies do.
While we’ve seen toxic waste and sweatshops on TV, we may not think of our conversations, letters and emails as particularly dangerous. Magazines like Ethical Hedonist show us green companies that trade fairly and give back to society. But bad communication can have serious consequences, too. Miscommunication often means lost time, lost sleep and lost financial security. And the tone and context of our words can mean lost relationships too.
Conscious communication is good for people, profit and the planet
The ‘people’ part of the triple bottom line is all about making human lives better: fostering equality, joy, connection and creativity. Inclusive communication can do a lot to help us all achieve our full potential. However, many people unconsciously take their own abilities for granted when writing to others. As a result, blind web users struggle to understand what their screen readers are saying. And dyslexic customers may have to ask someone for help with a leaflet that’s designed with hard-to-read fonts.
Conscious communication can boost profits, too.
Use every single message to show you care — and you’ll speak to heads and hearts. People who feel this connected with you will want to support your business.
Because clarity and warmth reduce the need for repeating oneself, they’re also good for the planet. Any email thread or phone call that drags on and on and on will use up more natural resources. Let’s take it a step further though and check how we communicate: do we really need to print this and send it in the post? Can we use more eco-friendly stationery, such as unbleached paper? And how do we generate the energy that feeds our computers?
Switching off autopilot
Communicating well is often termed a ‘soft skill’. I think it’s actually a hard skill — one we can learn and practice just like accounting, driving or computer programming. When we’re driving somewhere new in someone else’s car, we tend to pay a little more attention. In the same way, it’s worth approaching every interaction consciously if we don’t know the other person well. In our training, we call this ‘switching off autopilot’.
Here are our ACE tips for ethical communication, based on linguistics, psychology and user research:
2. Clear and Correct
1. Be accessible to all.
Make sure there are no barriers for people with disabilities and learning difficulties. In our melting pot society, it’s also worth considering the needs of expats and people of different cultural backgrounds. Do your words translate well? Do they evoke the feeling you intended?
2. Be clear and correct.
Unfortunately, we’ve come to take it for granted that terms and conditions equal endless gobbledygook. As ethical companies, let’s strive to be the exception to that rule. Let’s embrace transparency: we have no dirty secrets to hide. This means we can afford to communicate without fear and ditch the jargon. We can give friendly and direct instructions. And instead of overwhelming others with a wall of words, we can give them space with short sentences, surrounded by silence. In other words, white space.
Empathy has become a fashionable term. But real empathy is very different from the ‘me, too!’-culture the fad has created. It requires that we’re present with each other and pay attention to the individual experience. One way brands can do this is by staying true to themselves even when things go wrong. Customers crave authenticity. Their emotional needs aren’t met if the fun and engaging brand they bought from turns all bureaucratic afterwards.
Stick to an approachable tone instead, especially when you’re responding to a complaint. Because subconsciously, many people interpret emails and letters more negatively than they’re intended; psychologists speak of ‘negative bias’. To overcome this, it helps to read out loud what you’ve written. Do it twice: first, use your friendliest tone of voice. Listen to yourself and check if your words support the friendly tone. Then, read it again in your coldest and nastiest tone of voice. Does it sound realistic? Improve the words and expressions that could be friendlier. (You’ll also spot typos and lengthy sentences that way.)
The ACE approach can be helpful in any situation, whether at the office or at home. It works face to face, on the phone, in writing and on social media.
Conscious communication is worth the effort
If you switch off autopilot, you’ll also see lots of personal benefits. For example, you’ll come across as more competent and confident — which could get you the promotion or award you’re after. You’ll also build stronger relationships with your team, your customers, your family and friends. And who wouldn’t want that.
Sabine Harnau heads up From Scratch, a communications consultancy with a mission: to make excellent communication accessible to all.
The best insights from linguistics, psychology and user research are distilled into effective writing, training that truly empowers teams, and customer satisfaction programmes — tailored to each business.
From Scratch is a conscious company, constantly looking to tread more lightly on the earth. It’s also a proud member of the #EthicalHour community of ethical businesses.
For more information, check from-scratch.net. You can also get in touch via facebook.com/supportfromscratch or tweet to @scratch_posts.
Sabine’s own social media profiles are all listed on sabineharnau.com.
Photography of Sabine by Ashley Baxter Copyright May 2017. No reproduction without permission.
All other pictures: Unsplash:
People by Tanja Heffner, Piggybank by Fabian Blank, Tree by Wolfgang Lutz, Cockpit by Kristopher Allison
This feature is sponsored by From Scratch Communications Ltd.