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Barriers in business: Mind your language

Understanding how we communicate and interpret meanings online is pretty fundamental to website design. Keeping visuals and content simple and accessible, reducing the amount of jargon and terminology (thus appealing to the widest audience) should be the primary focus. Any deviation from that may impact on your brand and your business.

If only verbal communication in business settings was as straightforward. 

This blog is the first in a two-part series on the theme of communication. In Barriers in business: Mind your language we're raising awareness of the issues around neurodiversity and how to avoid ambiguity in communication in the workplace. Our second blog ‘Buzzwords - have we forgotten how to communicate?’ discusses the over-use of buzzwords in particular and explains why most are best left out of our professional dialogue.

Understanding the impact of neurodiversity in the workplace

Neurodiversity in the workplace is gaining more prominence in business. Considerations for neurodiverse individuals are beginning to be recognised and adaptations made, to create a more inclusive working environment. 

The job interview (for example) is one such area of current scrutiny. With the pressure on businesses to attract and retain top talent, the selection process is a focus for most organisations. Adjustments such as not asking overly abstract questions and using skill-based assessments have been introduced. Identifying these more obvious and initial barriers to employment are a necessary and positive step to progress, but there are more subtle and deeper issues that may arise beyond the interview stage.

The forms of communication used within a working environment is one aspect that requires more focus.

Neurodiversity - and why it can create miscommunication?

As described by the diagnostic label ‘neurodiverse’, individuals with autism, ADHD, dyslexia, Tourette’s, and other conditions that fall under the same category, process information and behave/think differently to the neurotypical population.

Language is one of the key areas of cognitive processing that neurodiverse people struggle with. Figurative speech used in the workplace is often misconstrued or misunderstood by neurodiverse individuals, making it difficult to fully integrate with peers and this in turn may impact on how the individual understands the aims and approaches of a company. 

Autistic people in particular, are likely to struggle with conceptual and idiomatic meanings of phrases, and will perceive language in its literal expression, whereas those with ADHD may have difficulties with organising thoughts and speech. Unnecessarily complicated or unheard phrases can cause confusion.

Language and perception are not always deficits for neurodiverse people – a pragmatic and simplistic approach can save a lot of confusion in some contexts - but in the contemporary world where complex language structures are an integral aspect of human communication, it can be tough to fit in and adapt.

Overuse of buzzwords potentially excludes some of your workforce

A vast amount of speech in human language is made up of metaphors, idioms and other non-literal expressions. The phrase ‘Think outside the box’ is one used so often that it is assumed that everyone can understand its meaning. The most common idioms, such as this, are generally learnt from childhood, therefore neurodiverse people have less of a harder time interpreting their meanings. 

However, businesses use unique idioms and figures of speech that most people do not come across before working in a specific organisation. Terms such as ‘cornering the market’, ‘crunching the numbers’, ‘elevator pitch’ - these are just a few examples of specific phrases used within the sales and financial sectors. 

Context, social cues and paralanguage can generally help us to infer the meaning of unknown phrases: we can apply a schema of knowledge and gain an understanding of the general meaning of a phrase. But this may not be so straightforward for neurodiverse people who struggle with language and/or reading of social situations. This is where explaining terms or using more neurodiverse-friendly phrases may be useful.

How can organisations help their neurodiverse employees?

According to CIPD only one in ten organisations claim to consider neurodiversity in their people management skills. This means that roughly 90% of businesses fail to make adjustments and recognise that people with neurodiverse conditions may have a difficult time adapting and following instructions. 

What can businesses do to make their environment more inclusive and adapted for neurodiverse employees? It cannot be expected that language within the workplace can be completely changed – nor expect businesses to avoid using language and phrases that are ingrained and implicit to their day-to-day operations.

What we can do is promote awareness and patience. Discussing individual needs is a great place to start – there is unlikely to be a universal solution that will suit every employee. Creating a healthy and open work environment is key; it must be a safe place for neurodiverse people to share their struggles, ask questions and request any extra assistance. 

It may just be a case of clarifying terms or phrasing used if those used are ambiguous. Most importantly employers should be aware and mindful that although they and their peers take for granted understanding and adapting to figurative language, that others may not find it so easy to adjust. 

Although neurodiversity is not a defining characteristic that grants different treatment, the consideration that these individuals may have additional needs that have not been thought of is greatly helpful.

A positive and inclusive workplace environment will ensure employees don't feel alienated or emphasise the struggles they may have to cope with which others master without a second thought.

People management, at its core, is about maximising everyone's potential.

This guide on the CIPD website - Neurodiversity at work is good reference for employers and those involved in the management of people.

At The Digital Doctor, our whole ethos is about delivering projects to our clients in straightforward, jargon-free terms, so if  you're looking to work with designers and content writers who think the same way as you do, then contact us.

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