Have you ever noticed that most of what we say flows automatically? We don’t choose the actual words. Rather, we start speaking with a certain intention, and they just follow.

That’s why you can tell when somebody is following a script, and why it’s difficult to employ carefully rehearsed sentences. It’s just not natural.

This makes it tough to remain fluent and to achieve optimal phrasing at the same time. If I am addressing a client on a delicate subject, trying to avoid inflammatory terms, I need to concentrate very hard and slow down if I am to say exactly what I intended.

I make this observation following a training course that I facilitated recently. We did an exercise on confronting customers about difficult issues: telling them “no”, drawing their attention to their deficiencies, requesting resources, et cetera. I first presented some theory on how to handle the communication, and everyone seemed to agree that this was quite easy—even obvious.

Then we tried an exercise where an engineer was to push back on a customer’s extreme expectations for how a product evaluation be handled. To cut a long story short, the first requirement of the communication protocol was to state facts. But, in fact, the very first sentence the participant uttered contained a personal opinion – a judgement. “You know these evaluations require a lot of resources…”.

When the observers (the rest of the class) pointed out that, “a lot of” was subjective, the participant couldn’t at first believe that he’d made that mistake. He had fully intended to state only facts. Then he tried again, and made a similar error. “It’s incredible”, he said, “I know what I want to say, but the wrong words come out”.

This makes sense since, fortunately, we don’t think about each and every word that we say. If we did, speaking would be incredibly tiring, and listening correspondingly tiresome. With practice, some people achieve a good level of control over their vocabulary while remaining fluent, but even they have good and bad days.

There are circumstances where it's really important to avoid saying, for example, “but”, or to use unnecessary adjectives. If I’m talking to a customer whose production line has just gone down because of something my company did, then I’d be better to avoid promising a “quick” response, since their idea of “quick” might be different from mine. Better to define a precise delay. If the customer’s team could have prevented the production stoppage by reacting differently, I would have to say this while avoiding the inflammatory words “error”, “mistakes”, or similar. Like everyone, customers under stress can quickly lose their tempers, and a poorly chosen word can be all that it takes.

Ironically, this is where email—famous for its capacity to arouse negative feelings—can come to the rescue. A carefully–worded email will prime the recipient, making them more likely to understand a subsequent face-to-face message as it was intended. And if this doesn’t work, I can refer to the email for clarification during the meeting or call.