How do your words affect the people around you? Do they inspire trust or incite fear? Do they convey respect, or do they intimidate?

Here’s a quick way to assess how you come across to others. It’s based on research by communication expert Jack Gibb.

Which of the following sentences sound like something you might write or say?

1. If you were a team player, you’d pay attention to details and protocol.

2. This is a complex issue, so I’m open to your thoughts and ideas.

3. If you fix this problem for me and no one finds out about it, I’ll be good to you.

4. I understand why you’re angry and afraid.

5. If you don’t like the way I’m running this company, find another one to work for.

6. I’m not saying I have all the answers.

Before you score your choices according to Gibb’s six categories of “defensive and supportive communication behaviors,” let’s repeat the test. Which of the following sentences sound like something you would write or say? If you’re not sure, ask a colleague or friend which sound like you, or compare them to the tone of 10 messages in your sent folder.

1. When you consult with us before making changes, it’s easier for us to explain new policies to our customers.

2. If you want to get ahead in this company, you gotta play by my rules.

3. Let’s try something new and see what happens.

4. You say you feel overworked, but so do your colleagues — everyone feels overworked.

5. Even though I’m the boss, I alone cannot make this company great.

6. Believe me, I know more about this than the experts.

As you may have noticed, the 12 numbered sentences above alternate between “threatening” (1, 3, 5; 2, 4, 6) and “supportive” (2, 4, 6; 1, 3, 5). Their numbering corresponds to Gibb’s six categories of behavior, which elicit either defense-arousing or trust-inspiring responses:

1. evaluation / description; 2. control / problem orientation; 3. strategy / spontaneity; 4. neutrality / empathy; 5. superiority / equality; 6. certainty / provisionalism

Regarding category 4, neutrality sounds like a positive attribute, as in objectivity, but what Gibb is describing is an unwillingness to take a stand, a kind of lip service. Also, note that empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy involves feeling sorry for someone; empathy involves understanding another person’s perspective, situation or life experience.

The problem with defense-arousing language, according to Gibb, is that it causes people to feel insecure and it makes them “particularly likely to place blame, to see others as fitting into categories of good or bad, [and] to make moral judgments of their colleagues.”

So, what kind of communicator are you? What kind of environment are your words creating? More important, what kind of world do you want to live in?


Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at His website is