IMAGE: Are you using the right language

Are you using the right language?

Is the language you are using part of the solution or could it be part of the problem?

Terminology can be tricky.

“We often see differences between the language used by senior management and the language used by team leaders and staff when talking about the same issues. Does this lead to problems in your organisation too?”

Here is one example of ambiguous language. Many people would describe themselves as “tolerant*”. Many of these people might also say there is no place in our society for intolerant people. Ironically, is the “tolerant” person who does not tolerate those whom they consider to be intolerant, also intolerant?

So when people are calling for a tolerant society, what do they really mean by the word “tolerant”? Are they actually just advocating for a society where people’s behaviours and beliefs are similar to their own? Regardless of the merits of their plight, the use of “tolerant” is misrepresentative.

Similarly, the meaning of “zero tolerance” is ambiguous with regard to zero tolerance policies relating to aggressive behaviours in the workplace.

What language or terminology do you use that is ambiguous, vague, or even contradictory?

Care should be taken when using such terms as they are likely to lead to misunderstanding, particularly if English is a second language for some of the participants in the conversation.


What is the impact on your safety conversations when you use ambiguous language to describe your experiences?

With regard to aggressive behaviours in the workplace, many organisations will use different approaches to manage verbal abuse compared to threats compared to physical assault. This makes sense. However many organisations will also have only one general incident category for “aggressive behaviours” along the lines of this definition provided by Worksafe Victoria:

“Work-related violence means incidents in which a person is abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances relating to their work. It includes verbal abuse, threats and physical attack.” Worksafe Victoria

A similar definition is provided for “Occupational Violence and Aggression (OVA)”.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

How does broad or ambiguous language affect your incident reporting and subsequent analysis?

Perhaps clarification (in your manuals and procedures) between “verbal abuse”, “threats/threatening behaviours”, and “physical assault” will provide the framework for more meaningful safety conversations.

If you are now thinking about how to improve your definitions, read our blog: Defining Aggressive Behaviours

If you are looking for a more involved framework, you may like to consider elements of the definitions for types of aggression as provided in “Tool T1: Exposure to aggression risk calculator” from “Prevention and Management of Aggression in Health Services” (Edition 2. June 2017) by Worksafe Victoria being:

Should you change any of the language and terminology used by your team?

Please feel welcome to contact Holland Thomas to discuss.

* The Cambridge English Dictionary defines “tolerant” as “willing to accept behaviour and beliefs that are different from your own, although you might not agree with or approve of them.”

Image of Travis Holland presenting

Travis Holland
Managing Director
Holland Thomas
Travis Holland email address

My Safety Buddy. Find out more.

Should you wish to discuss strategies to improve your staff’s safety in their work environment, please feel welcome to contact Holland Thomas.

Our goal at Holland Thomas is to create safer workplaces that enhance wellbeing for all concerned whilst also delivering improved operational and financial performance.

This blog draws on our years of experience delivering our M.A.B.™ Staff Safety Training (Contextualised Prevention and Management of Aggressive Behaviours) across Australia and the development of My Safety Buddy, our smartphone app and web portal based lone worker safety solution.

Enjoyed this piece? Please share, like, and comment. If you would like to read more, follow Travis on LinkedIn.