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The Hidden Clues Every Speaker is Giving You When You Focus on How They Say it


 — May 17th, 2022

The Hidden Clues Every Speaker is Giving You When You Focus on How They Say it

Speech and language offer a palette of colors. Colors have range, intensity, and vibrance. They can blend to form subtle and nuanced variations. They can also be black and white.

This is true for a conversation. You can be speaking in blue, they can be speaking in red, and the dialogue blends the two colors, forming purple.

Like color, language has patterns, opposites, and combinations. When listening to the word patterns, you gain insight into how the speaker uses vocabulary to make sense of their world. Their speech pattern is how they translate the world into their unique words, sentences, and stories.

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People use adjectives and pronouns in unique patterns.

These patterns help you understand how the speaker relates to the issue and expresses their perspective.

This layer of language is like a regional accent or dialect. Although you are both speaking in the same base language, the way you communicate specific concepts varies subtly or dramatically based on the participants’ familiarity with the dialect.

As the listener, you need to be aware of the adjective and pronoun patterns of the speaker; otherwise, the conversation could be laden with the weight of misunderstanding.

This misunderstanding could lead to frustration. As a result, listening starts to take more effort and becomes less effective.


Adjectives are words that describe objects or issues. They typically describe nouns. Patterns in adjectives emerge in the way people describe issues. Adjectives might be used to explain the energy, shape, or size of a problem.

Notice when adjectives form patterns, as it will provide an insight into the preferred communication style of the speaker.

The Project

During a client assignment dealing with a six-month engineering quality improvement project, I was asked to assist the group in creating a shared understanding. I asked them to place one or two words to describe the project into a sealed envelope.

These are the descriptions I read out loud to the group from the words in the envelope:

  • The complex project
  • The costly project
  • The draining project
  • The duplication project
  • The frustrating project
  • The high-profile project
  • The never-ending project
  • The political project
  • The unnecessary project

You quickly get a sense through the adjectives about where the gravity was in this project.

As important as it was for me to understand their current state of mind, it was more important that the group understood how they felt about the project.

The adjectives described how everyone was feeling in relation to the project, rather than the project itself.

We spent the next ninety minutes discussing the shared understanding of how the group felt, rather than rushing to solve the issue and fix the project. At lunch, one of the participants asked me for a private discussion.

She explained how revealing it was that everyone felt safe to tell the truth anonymously to a sealed envelope, yet there was not enough trust in the group to speak up and listen to each other.

She asked, “What do you think that is about, Oscar?”

I said, “Would you feel comfortable asking the group this question after lunch?”

She said, “No.”

I realized I had much work to do and had only touched on the surface issues in the project. The list of words did not mention it, yet every adjective pointed out the absence of trust.

Adjectives can be signposts in complex systems and team situations.


Pronouns are linguistic shortcuts to describe someone. They may include I, you, she, he, it, they, their, them, us. Pronouns are useful shortcuts to understanding the speaker’s orientation. When their attention is in, it’s about me: I, my. When their attention is out, they are more likely to be using we or us.

The three layers of orientation to notice are me, we, or us. These will vary based on the issue, and the relationship. The speaker can use pronouns that signal self (me), other (them), or system orientation (us).

· Self-orientation: me, I, mine

· Other orientation: we, them, team

· Systems orientation: us, organization, community

Rather than focusing on one or two specific pronouns, notice clusters and patterns across the pronouns. Listening for the pronouns will provide clues about how to ask questions that may create a different perspective.

If they’re stuck in a monologue and you notice through their pronouns that it’s a pattern focused on me, ask them a question from a different perspective: we or us. If it’s a team or project that’s stuck in an internal pattern, invite an external view. It could be in a different industry or country.

Often, this will create the circuit breaker they need to listen differently to the next steps. Holding a mirror to their patterns can create an observation, insight, or a-ha moment, or it can reset the discussion.

Be careful: you can get lost or misread a situation if you become fixated on only noticing a narrow language component. It is a trap. Rather than analyzing every adjective and pronoun continuously, make it easier for yourself and just notice if they change the use of pronouns.

Listening to the patterns in their language—the adjectives and the pronouns—will help you maintain your focus when you get distracted.

Managers hear what’s being said and leaders listen to how it's been said.

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