Word of Mouth

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As you start to read this article I invite you to reflect first.

Consider when you last spoke about another person.  Now think about what you said about that person and to whom. Was what you said supportive or not? Was what you said helpful or not? Was what you said something you would say to that person directly?

Maybe so, maybe not.

Now consider the frequency with which you speak about others. How many people do you talk about - in a day, week, month, year? Are there some you talk about more than others?

Hmmm…I wonder.

So now you have some anecdotal, qualitative and quantitative data about YOUR word of mouth.  Now multiply and expand this by everyone you know and don’t know and you have a lot of word of mouth going around!

We all use word of mouth. We all talk about others and pass on our opinion. Such information is part of our process of learning, relating and discerning what works and does not work in this world.  You as I are equally contributing.

Who vs what

What matters then is not so much that we speak about others but what is said.  Even so we still find that people filter word of mouth by reputation. You will likely listen to one person because they have credibility with you than another who you do not know.  We filter without awareness. We listen without being mindful because at some level we take it at face value that if so and so said this it must be true.  If you are someone that another values and listens to then what you say may carry more weight than you realise. So being mindful of both what you listen to and what you say is important.

Yet what happens to many of us in all professions, all walks of life, is we talk about others mindlessly. We fall into the rhythm of gossip. Written or verbal matters not, for many unleash their opinion of others without any consideration. And often what we share is simply that - opinion.

Think of it this way. Your word of mouth is in essence a walking talking advertisement of you.  What you say shows others your thinking, values, objectivity, emotions and integrity.

Being effective

Word of mouth is a fact of life. It is part of every group, community and relationship.  So therefore given its inherent existence how can we make it more effective and constructive?  

Well it starts with you and me. When one person increases their self awareness about what and how we talk about others then this changes the entire dynamic of a conversation. Whether one, two or more people are chatting one person can redirect the focus.  

I am known to do this. When I start seeing a conversation spiralling down into a judgement slinging match I will observe objectively at first. Then I make an attempt to redirect the conversation in a diplomatic way towards constructive sharing. If this does not work then I politely step out and say I will not be part of such discussion.

For me I also separate out word of mouth from what is said in the privacy of a counselling, coaching or healing session. In such confidential arrangements what we say is part of a process and can be facilitated with objectivity and respect. We may need to clear the air before we can get to an objective place.

A gift

Outside of the confines of a professional conversation I then see word of mouth as something different than gossip or hearsay, whether positive or not.

Word of mouth is a gift.

Yes a gift.

What we choose to say takes effort, consideration and focus. When we share with integrity and authenticity as well as respect for the other person we are giving a gift.  This is not about just saying the positive, though we could certainly do with more of that.  Sometimes the constructive feedback or alternative view shared is helpful. It matters how you say what you say and the permission you have from the other to share.  Also in a world of diversity and unique expression we are inevitably going to have differences.


Business workplaces

Where I am most concerned and would like to focus my attention is on word of mouth in business.  What happens when the vocal sharing is out of control? What happens to the unspoken praise and encouragement? What happens to the baseless assumptions and opinions slung around affecting perception and relationships?  What happens when one person gets an unbalanced share of praise because they happen to have a vocal manager? What happens when someone doesn’t know how to speak up for themselves amongst the opinion sharing?  So many variables. So much to work with.

Yes there are formalised processes to capture word of mouth objectively.  We have performance reviews, 360 degree feedback, focus groups, employee surveys. We have opportunities to say what we need to say constructively.  Yet what really gets said or unsaid often will not show up in these formats. Why? Because of the inherent nature of the formal process. People will bring their bias to the collection of this data. And even more so the sharing is not timely in relation to the behaviour.  Even so these tools help create a balance towards constructive conversations.

In the absence of these tools are the frank word of mouth conversations.  Such sharing has a charge because people in a particular team, group or company listen and contribute. It is not uncommon to have a team develop what I would call gossip/hearsay silos.  Also it is more common that the subject and topics of such discussions are negative, whingy or complaining without being constructive.  Think of any of these in your workplace?

An experience

I was not always balanced or constructive. Especially when I worked inside organisations I would find group think dominated many conversations. It was challenging to stand up on your own when dominating people wanted to swing a conversation down the judgement hearsay spiral.

I remember working with a team at one point in my corporate career. When doing this I would often indulge in the gossip and rumour mill. Yes I was sucked in.  It was as common as having a morning coffee.  I noticed that with certain people the conversations became quite spiteful and negative. In fact each time we would sit together there would be the same complaints. We were mired in negativity.  Perhaps we were managing our frustration at working with a challenging individual. Perhaps we were just in the habit of being critical.  Whatever it was I did not enjoy the experience.

Months later not working with this team I noticed a difference.  When I went back to meet with the person who drove the negative conversations I noticed a difference. The more I was away from this environment the more these conversations dropped and diminished. I talked less and less with complaints and negative word of mouth. It was interesting.  At one point it was so obvious that I almost had nothing in common with one of my former teammates. Why? Because I simply did not want to engage anymore in the gossip and rumour mill. I chose consciously to step away from this downward direction and engage with others.

I also noticed a change in me. I complained less to others about these situations. I did not let the situations get to me as much.  I also noticed unfortunately how common such group think can become. There are often leaders in the dialogue, hence my comment above about who says the words matters.

The non vocal

Then there is another factor - the unspoken. Not so much the unsaid of what would be inappropriate etc but the unsaid by people afraid to share.  In the face of an unbalanced word of mouth conversation there are other points of view. What happens when a vocal person dominates the less vocal person? The bias emerges.  The less vocal person’s willingness to share decreases. 

We go about our day so often with just the thoughts in our head. When the thoughts are constructive and would help another why do we not share them? Unfortunately our emotions don’t usually fuel positive and encouraging feedback in business. Wouldn’t that be interesting a positive spiral upwards of word of mouth in a workplace?

It seems that the absence of word of mouth from some leads to an imbalance.


Well here’s my theory. Until we can say to our selves as individuals positive and encouraging comments and not feed our own inner critic we are going to have a difficult time turning to others and being constructive. In other words it is easier to focus on what others are doing than look in the mirror, right?

Also as long as our focus in business is on highlighting what does not work, telling people what they need to do better and critically evaluating rather than praising again we will have the imbalance.

So let’s consider firstly how we can converse with ourselves constructively. Then let’s turn this to others, our workplace and our businesses.

Jenn Shallvey