treadmill verbs: woman using different tmethods of communication

Stop issuing open invitations to talk without purpose, says Ann Latham

‘Communicate’ is one of many words I have dubbed a treadmill verb. Others include report, review, share, inform, and update, to name just a few of the most common. Hear these often? Read on to learn why they should all be eliminated from our vocabulary.

So, What’s a Treadmill Verb?

If you have ever been on a treadmill, you know that you can always walk or run a little farther. Another mile. Another ten minutes. You never reach a destination. No lake shore. No mountain top.

Treadmill verbsare similar in that there is no destination.Instead of walking, you can just keep talking a little longer. Another ten minutes. There is no way to know when you have arrived.

‘Communicate’ is a treadmill verb because you can communicate forever. You can review forever as well. Same with report, inform, share, and update. There is no destination.

If you aren’t convinced, consider a request made about a billion times a day: “Please review this.” To understand how ridiculous this request is, consider the many different things you might look for while reviewing a document. Spelling, grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, sentence flow, logic, credibility, persuasiveness, thoroughness, unnecessary content, verbosity, misconceptions, accuracy, feasibility, risks, customer reaction, an executive’s reaction, clarity to non-native readers. You can review forever! The length of this list – and I’m sure you could add to it – demonstrates the incredible lack of clarity inherent in a treadmill verb such as ‘review’.

When you ask someone to communicate, report, review, or any of the other treadmill verbs, you are issuing an open invitation to talk without purpose. That’s not the road to better, faster results. That’s the road to lots of talk with little to show for it.

What’s the Alternative?

Specificity is the key to eliminating ridiculously vague treadmill verbs. And there is one powerful question that will help you be more specific:

“What must be different when we are done?”

What concrete, tangible outcome do we want to walk away with that we don’t have now and that will make a real difference? What decision, plan, problem resolution, list, confirmation, approval, or answer will constitute real progress and unleash our next step?

Take that review request for instance. Imagine how much more effective your request would have been had you asked specifically for one or two of those outcomes I listed! Imagine also how much easier you would have made the task for the person you are asking!

Furthermore, by thinking through your needs more carefully, you are more likely to ask the right person to do the review.

Suppose you just want to ‘communicate’ or ‘inform’ so people feel included, know what’s going on, or can be supportive? In that case, don’t just start talking. Always ask yourself what must be different when you have finished.

  • Do you want them to have answers to their questions so they aren’t distracted? “This is what we are doing; do you have any questions?”
  • Do you want their ideas? “This is what we are thinking of doing; what are we missing? What will make this hard? Where are the risks?”
  • Do you want to be sure your plans won’t negatively affect their plans? “This is what we are thinking of doing; how will that affect you? Can we make this work?”

Each of these scenarios will guide the questions you ask, and in each case you will also know when you have finished. When you answer all of their questions, you are done! When you have your lists of omissions, obstacles, and risks, you are done! When you have a list of concerns and conflicts, you are done!

Or maybe you just want to keep a project moving forward. Instead of round-robin reporting that may reveal nothing important, consider more specific questions such as:

  • What have we learned since we last met?
  • What must we still learn before we can be confident of finishing on time?
  • What is most likely to prevent us from staying within our budget?
  • How can we mitigate those risks?

The questions you ask will depend on your situation, but in every case you will get better results faster if you avoid treadmill verbs and ask yourself instead, “What must be different when we are done?”

Ann Latham is the author of The Power of Clarity: Unleash the True Potential of Workplace Productivity, Confidence, and Empowerment and is the founder of US-based consulting firm Uncommon Clarity. Her clients represent over 40 industries and range from ... (Read More)

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