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4 instances where provocative language can be effective (and when it goes too far)

Being provocative can sometimes be used as a positive communication tool–but don’t overdo it.

4 instances where provocative language can be effective (and when it goes too far)
[Photo: PNG Design/Unsplash]

In certain situations, being provocative can be an effective communication technique. But if you go overboard, it can backfire.

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In the past, old movies often portrayed bosses as belligerent–pounding their hands on the table, and spewing profanities. But in the past decade, it seems like every business book is preaching compassionate and service-oriented leadership. An abusive boss, Robert Pozen writes, “fosters an environment of fear”–which doesn’t do much for a company’s productivity. A supportive boss, however, cultivates a sense of trust and safety, which is necessary for innovation to take place. And kind and compassionate bosses don’t resort to provocative language when they’re communicating with their team.

But should they? The thing is, there are times when it can be an effective speaking technique. The key is knowing when to stop, so you don’t go too far. When you understand the impact of provocative language, you can navigate the power and perils to make the choices that are right for you in every hallway meeting, every Zoom call, every meeting, every day. Here are some instances in which it can be powerful.

1. It can cut through clutter and confusion

Provocative language cuts like a knife. If you want to communicate that you need a breakthrough, provocative language can clear out the clutter of conflicting ideas and take your team to a new mind-set. For example, you can say, “We have to torpedo that proposal.” This phrase represents a powerful image, and you won’t force anyone to read between the lines.

However, provocative language can also pierce arguments and unleash a new level of resistance and stonewalling. Think of that scene in Gladiator when the gladiators create a circle with their shields outward to fight against the horde. Your audience might push back against your feedback, or be too afraid to suggest new ideas for that proposal. So before you open your mouth, think about your objective. Are you trying to make a point without eliciting further discussion, or are you hoping to deliver constructive criticism with the intention of brainstorming something better? If it’s the latter, you might want to stay away from using provocative language.

2. You get someone’s attention immediately

When someone says something provocative, the effect is similar to a flashing siren. You might not want to look, but you do anyway, and you keep looking. A flashing siren commands everyone’s attention, just like the phrase, “We have to beat the crap out of them to get what we want.”

But think of your reaction to the siren–you get tense, you go into hyperactive mode, and you start looking for ways to escape and get out of the way. The siren activates your fight-and-flight mode, and so does hearing a provocative phrase.

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The key is to use it sparingly, and once you have your audience’s attention, stop right there. Too much provocative language for too long will trigger your audience’s flight-or-fight mode, and they’ll start resisting your message or tune them out altogether.

3. It can demonstrate boldness

So many employers today are looking for people who are curious, creative–and above all–bold. Provocative language projects that daring quality. But if you go too far, you can go over the edge in a hurry. You will come across as aggressive and belligerent, not bold.

For example, say you’re talking about your direct report’s work with another coworker. You say to them, “What a hatchet job.” You’ve made it clear that the work is below your standard, and you’ve definitely been clear and precise. But rather than seeing you as someone who expects high standards and performance, they might see you as a bully.

4. It can create camaraderie

In certain instances, provocative language can build friendships by breaking through social barriers. You feel like you’re all in the trenches together, and you can call a spade a spade.

But for the many in the outer circle, provocative language alienates because they have a different definition of authenticity. One of my client’s sons quit the college basketball team because he was uncomfortable with the locker room talk. So just as it can bring a group together, it can also alienate, offend, and polarize those who don’t appreciate the innuendo or feel connected to the phrase you used.

Provocative language can be a powerful way to get your point across. But to achieve its full effect, you need to use it sparingly, and genuinely know your audience. You don’t want to ruin a persuasive speech by saying one phrase that makes the audience cringe, so think and plan carefully.

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About the author

Anett Grant is the CEO of Executive Speaking, Inc. and the author of the new e-book, CEO Speaking: The 6-Minute Guide. Since 1979, Executive Speaking has pioneered breakthrough approaches to helping leaders from all over the world--including leaders from 61 of the Fortune 100 companies--develop leadership presence, communicate complexity, and speak with precision and power

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