Keep It Clear

Have you ever had a conversation with someone, believing that you were 'on the same page' only to them have them do the complete opposite thing? The truth is that the language we use either promotes clarity of understanding or it can add further confusion. The tougher the conversation is, the more likely it is that confusion will reign supreme. 

Let's not do that...

The goal is to achieve as much clarity in our language as possible. One of the best ways to do this is to use behaviour-based language instead of trait-based language. What’s the difference between a trait and a behaviour, you ask? Well, listen up, you're gonna wanna be clear on this:

Traits are a label that we give to a collection of behaviours. They are things like punctual, lazy, hard-working, team-player. 

Behaviours are something that we can directly observe. For example, someone holding the door open, shaking someone's hand, or making a cup of tea. Judgement is removed and the language is more observational. 

Traits are part of our everyday language and are useful for summarising behaviours into a collective group, but in tough conversations they amplify confusion because we have different understandings of what these traits look like. Each person has a unique 'movie in their head' about what the trait looks like. 

Clarity is achieved when you use BEHAVIOUR-BASED language. Be specific about the behaviour you are addressing, and be specific about the behaviour that you want to see more of. 

You can save a lot of time and wasted effort by getting clarity!


Before you step into a tough conversation, make time for preparation. Map out your process by getting clear on what you are going to address during the conversation. Even if you've only got 5 minutes this process will ensure greater clarity and result in a better outcome at the other end. 

Before you step into the conversation write down the traits that come to mind and code these into the behaviours you want to see less of. Then do the same process for the traits and behaviours you want to see more of. The more specific the better; e.g 'at next week's team meeting, bring your notebook and pen to write down your action items'.  

DOWNLOAD this handout to use in your process.



Behaviour-based language is useful when you are acknowledging positive behaviours of others. The more specific you are, the more likely it is that the other person will engage in that behaviour more often in the future. When you want to acknowledge the behaviours of others, letting them know exactly which behaviour you want to see more of, will help them to identify the behaviour that was appreciated.

For example, as a manager rather than saying 'thanks for helping out', you might say 'I really liked the way you allowed for questions at the end of your presentation'. The person is likely to repeat this particular behaviour when they have clarity on what you appreciate.