Leaders—What Are Your Word Choices Saying about You?

Several years ago when I began coaching, I was taught that it was important to focus closely on the language choices made by clients. For example, clients who said they would try to change a behavior, read an email, or follow up on a difficult situation inevitably failed. Clients who said “I will” were much more likely to succeed.

One client I worked with came to his first coaching session upset about being passed over for a promotion.  During the first ten minutes of our session, I noticed the language my client chose as he talked about his feelings. The words and phrases he used suggested that he actually hadn’t wanted the promotion. His speech was peppered with weak and ineffectual words and phrases such as try and sort of. The message was subtle yet undeniable.

When my client paused at minute eleven I took advantage of the moment and asked, “What’s next?”

My client began to talk about future plans—and as he did, I noticed something interesting. The same semi-committed language he had used earlier about wanting the promotion popped up again regarding the future he wanted to create for himself. He sort of wanted to taper back to part time. He might want to try to get off the merry-go-round of a seventy-hour work week. He was thinking about, maybe, hopefully, getting back into music.

I asked my client to consider shifting from try to will. From thinking about to doing. From weak to strong.  He agreed—and in three short coaching sessions he was able to transform the language he was using from ineffectual to powerful with positive results.

Wondering if your leadership language—both internally and externally—could use a cleanup?  Here are three places to start.

  1. Give credit and accept responsibility. In his book Good to Great, author Jim Collins shares an important distinction between serving and self-serving leaders. Collins says that self-serving leaders look in the mirror and take credit for successes, but when things go wrong they look out the window and assign blame to others. Great leaders do just the opposite—they use “we” statements as they look out the window to attribute success to factors outside themselves, but when things go poorly, they look in the mirror and use “I” statements as they take full responsibility.
  2. When setting goals, eliminate the word try. As Jedi master Yoda reprimanded Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back: “Do or do not. There is no try.” Consider the negative impact of the word try in this goal statement: “We will try to provide the best customer service.”  Leave it at will.
  3. Don’t mix positive and negative feedback. When giving feedback, keep praising separate from redirection. Leaders sometimes attempt to soften negative feedback by beginning with a praising.  Direct reports can see it coming from a mile away. For example: “You really hit that presentation out of the park—but next time try to look your audience in the eyes more often.”  When you want to praise good performance, be specific, focused, and timely.  Do the same with redirection. Ken Blanchard and his coauthor Spencer Johnson have a lot more to say on this topic in their book The New One Minute Manager.

As a leader it’s important to be precise with the meaning of your words. Take a second look at your language.  Is it clearly conveying what you want to say to yourself and others?  If not, consider these three ways to sharpen your language and your thinking.

About the Author

Patricia Overland is a Coaching Solutions Partner with The Ken Blanchard Companies’ Coaching Services team.  Since 2000, Blanchard’s 130 coaches have worked with over 14,500 individuals in more than 250 companies throughout the world. Learn more at Blanchard Coaching Services. And check out Coaching Tuesday every week at Blanchard LeaderChat for ideas, research, and inspirations from the world of executive coaching.


2 thoughts on “Leaders—What Are Your Word Choices Saying about You?

Leave a Reply