Your Words Matter

Your Words Matter

Dr. Rayford Barner & Dr. Reginald Jackson

If the recently published book Fire and Fury by author Michael Wolfe isn’t enough to convince you that your words matter, then we are not certain what will. As you listen to the conflicting accounts of what is written in Wolfe’s book between President Trump’s administration and the author, there is no debate whether the context of conversation matters. As a trainer, when people misunderstand the context of the words you choose, can this lead to the wrong impression of the trainer, the content or the organization? In a previous blog article titled, “What does Caitlyn Jenner have to do with our training?” the article discussed how a trainer’s examples can offend some adult learners because of offensive stereotypes. We tend to believe a trainer’s examples can do so, and given that traditional institutions are increasingly pluralistic, all trainers should be mindful of their audience when using descriptors involving race, culture, ethnicity, and gender.

 Should your word choice and context of usage about race, culture, and ethnicity in a training organization matter? Why?

We concede that, depending upon what adult learners are training to understand, some topics discussed can be perceived as negative—even if the intent is not. However, all good trainers understand that they should:

  1. Use only approved content descriptions with when speaking about a sensitive subject matter,
  2. Leave their personal feelings aside, and
  3. Corral any negative comments by participants.

For example, training first responders on issues of Homeland Security typically includes a historical conversation on international terrorism, most of which focuses on Muslim, Middle-Eastern, and South Asian communities but does not exclude the involvement of other groups. It is important for an exemplary trainer to separate the few individuals who participate in acts of terrorism from the larger cultural communities and contrast the negative with the positive contributions of the groups discussed. If this does not occur, could first responders overtly target or profile a race, ethnicity or culture for the actions of a few? Therefore, good trainers should lecture or facilitate with precision to avoid the perception of offending participants in attendance and creating training scars because of poor word choice.

To assist you, we offer some simple suggestions of how to avoid being perceived as insensitive, offensive, or biased because of your choice of words and the context of delivery. Our list is not exhaustive, but it is a starting point for developing exemplary delivery skills.

  1. Stay on-message by using the prescribed course content.
  2. No one in your session should ever know your political affiliation or personal biases, which always requires a strong degree of control.
  3. Set strict guidelines at the beginning of each session, so everyone is clear about expected behaviors.
  4. If there is a hot-topic discussion, try to remain as neutral as possible.
  5. Professionalism is your main objective.

Can you think of other good practices? If so, what are they?


  • “Use only approved content descriptions with when speaking about sensitive subject matter,” — sounds good in theory, but in practice this sounds like a nightmare. Who is doing the approving? Clearly it will vary from organization to organization. But how does a trainer handle when there is no time for “approval”?

    • Priscila Membreno

      I think then its up to the trainer to take that initiative and role to convey the message in a neutral professional manner. For any training role, you committed to deliver training materials to an audience in hope to reach a goal which can be that they learn a lot from the material or that they leave the training with great knowledge, etc. To do so, you must be able to deliver appropriate information regardless if someone approves it or not. If you dont have time for approval, you can maybe ask your coworkers for their opinion but I believe that it is up to us to also follow this. Not just the person who approves it or not.

  • This is a great post. As an avid reader and consumer of words both online and in print, this is something I think about a lot. In addition to preventing offense being taken in a training, awareness of one’s words can also hopefully help curb any unconscious bias in the learners. The first responder example is perfect highlight when the wrong words of instructors could plant seeds of bias in the learners.

    Another best practice that might be of good use, at least in my experience, is to let learners know that you are open to discussion if anything said does come off as offensive. While it’s not necessarily the student’s job to teach the teacher about bias, we are all humans who make mistakes. If an instructor is presented with a new situation, being open to discussion with the students can help engender a trusting learning environment.

    • Priscila Membreno

      Aw, that is a great idea. I will definitely be using your idea if I am ever in the position. I agree with you 100 percent and I think opening up a discussion really opens up this genuine conversation that helps out when talking about sensitive topics.

  • Your Words Matter

    Absolutely, I agree that as a trainer, our words matter completely. All that the trainer has is their words, a trainer’s presentation of delivery through strategic verbal skills is the main tool that we have. This article hit on all the key notes of why the words choices and the way we position things to the audience is critical. The tone of the trainer is just as important as the words that we choose.

    Can you think of other good practices? If so, what are they? Some of the best practices that I would like to add is prepping for the audience, so that a trainer can address each workgroup or participant based on what is important to them and speak their language of what is going to appeal to them. Also, simply matching the characteristics of the audience while still being able to tailor to a universal audience. Furthermore, having the skill set of involving all learning styles is a way to use words so that we are describing more in our facilitation for visual and auditory learners and then trainers are providing the how we can complete a task/event for the hands on learners.

    Also it is paramount that when we are shaping or giving feedback to a participant that we are still using words that are rewarding and making the participant/s feel valued. We have to be very careful no to diminish the integrity of the learner or classroom, so the words that we use need to be effective, transparent, and strategic.

    Thank you,

  • There is a level of professionalism a trainer should have within the context of facilitation. Depending on the training you help the class build relationships with one another. The class will have people from different views and backgrounds. Those should not be hidden. The trainer is best, in my opinion, when helping connect others. The opinions, politics, and stories should only work to build trust and engagement. Participants do not want to work hard for a person just pushing an agenda. They want to know a bit about you as a person before they do that. I am the same way, it helps to relate to the content, after all, we are working with and for people.

    The most important part of training is practice. Participants should have the opportunity to wash, rinse, and repeat a skill so that it becomes second nature. There are lulls in training when people need to connect with one another so long as it is the glue for the practice, the results will come.

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