Communication is the real work of leadership.
-Nitin Nohria, Dean of the Harvard Business School
As a leader, you likely already know that leadership is comprised of three basic—but very crucial—elements:
- What you feel (moods and emotions)
- How you act (body language)
- What you say (specific words and tones that you speak out loud and/or in your head)
All of these have many facets to explore, but language is a great starting point since it’s literally how we get our ideas across to others. And, while our spoken language is “only” responsible for 7% of our communication with others, it is still a very powerful vehicle. Spoken language is the very foundation of how we produce outcomes and generate realities in our professional and personal lives.
Join me as together we examine the power of words, as well as six simple strategies to implement today, so you can use the language of leadership to inspire and empower those you lead.
Words: The Building Blocks of Language
We humans are the only beings on this earth that communicate through spoken words. And while tone, volume, and context can affect how we’re perceived, it is words that often matter most.
For instance, think of a time when you felt put down by someone with a soft voice and a smiling face. Or maybe you were told that you did a “great job” in a grudging tone by a boss or co-worker. How did you feel, in either case? Perhaps you can think of a time when your own choice of words impacted someone else significantly, too.
In most cases, it’s the words that hit home to build us up or put us down. A big part of leadership is about choosing the right words to convey our meaning, connect with others, and channel our vision into the hearts and minds of those we lead.
6 Easy Strategies to Speak the Language of Leadership
Effective leaders know the power of a meaningful conversation – it’s often one of the most helpful ways to generate trust, foster cooperation, and craft a shared vision.
Here are some conversation strategies that you can use to stimulate productive dialogue:
1) Change “Yes, but…” to “Yes, and…” – People often associate the phrase “Yes, but…” with the word “no.” Generally, once we hear the word “but,” it cancels out any positive statement made before it. Instead of “but,” use the word “and.” In our minds, “and” allows two statements to be simultaneously true, thus preventing the often unhelpful knee-jerk reaction to the word “but.”
2) Replace “can” with “will.” – Someone telling us they can do something doesn’t necessarily mean they will. The language of commitment requires phrases such as “I will”, “I commit to” or “I choose to.” When it comes to inspiring your team, therefore, asking “Will you?” can be a far more effective approach than merely allowing your team to say what is in their ability to do.
3) Try the phrase: “I wonder if…” This is a great phrase to use when you’re proposing a course of action that may generate resistance. It tells others that while you don’t have all the answers, you’re curious and willing to put yourself on the hot seat to explore options. It also generates curiosity in your team to get them working on viable alternatives.
4) Be “transparent” rather than “honest.” What happens for you when someone tells you they are going to be “completely honest” with you? How much do you believe them? If you’ve ever said this yourself, what kind of response did you get? People already expect honesty from their leaders. What they need is transparency. Transparency lets others know you are sharing something important, something that requires you to be vulnerable. It also lets listeners know they are valued and trusted with this sensitive information. How willing are you to be transparent?
5) Speak from the heart. Those you lead value authenticity. In an HBR article on the language of leadership, author Tony Golsby-Smith points out that compelling leaders make authentic statements that demonstrate their core values, beliefs…hopes and dreams, even. When you’re in a conversation, don’t see the person as a “resource” – but as someone to relate to on an authentic, human level. Those of you who are familiar with the Iceberg Model will know that sharing “below the waterline” allows for greater vulnerability and therefore connection with and among team members. So, share a personal story where it feels appropriate to do so.
6) A little empathy can go a long way. Building on #5 above, empathy is a highly effective tool to develop and deepen relationships with your team. If empathy still seems elusive to you, begin practicing it in small doses when the situation calls for it. As mentioned above, expressing your own vulnerabilities and sharing your weaknesses in telling a story can lead to a stronger, more unified team.
How well do you really know your team members? Ask those you lead questions that show you care about them more than as “mere” employees” – and share a little more below the waterline about yourself …and experience the results.
Practicing the Language of Leadership
A good leader remembers that every person responds differently to a variety of words and phrases. Learn what energizes your team to make them feel confident and empowered.
It’s also important to understand cultural differences around specific words and language in general. What works for a US-raised employee might not be as well-received by someone who has grown up in the UAE, Singapore or France.
And finally, try these tips one at a time versus all at once so you can keep track of the responses you receive. Consider keeping a journal so you can easily review what specific language generated any shifts in reaction from your team – helpful or unhelpful. You can then make adjustments based on this information.
Using language effectively is one key way for leaders to bring out the best in both themselves and others. Commit yourself daily to this challenge and watch the gifts that unfold.
Looking for more tips on how to learn and effectively practice the language of leadership? Sign up here to access my free Weekly Bold Move.