How You Say “It” Really Matters

If you’re a leader you will at times need to tell people what to do. The least effective leaders must do that far more often than more effective leaders. But sooner or later even the most effective leader will need to give clear, concise direction. What some people might call an “order.”

I don’t like the word “order” so I’m going to call it direction. The most effective leaders know this leadership fact: how you say something is every bit as important as the something you say. In other words, how you give the direction is just as important as the direction you give.

The timing of providing your people direction is critical to how that direction is received. If you give direction to someone during a very stressful time their reaction is far less predictable. When someone’s emotions are running high they could have a very difficult time accepting “one more thing to do.”

The most effective leaders will look for a time when a person is more open to receiving direction. This of course requires a leader to know and understand their people but that’s not a significant challenge for an effective leader.

Effective leaders know that “tone” also makes a huge difference. The same words can be interpreted very differently depending upon the tone of voice. The wrong tone can turn a harmless sentence into a hurtful insult in a hurry. By the way, I hate this next part but it is what it is…. if someone is insulted by what you said then you insulted them. The “sorry you’re not smart enough to understand how I meant that” excuse is completely unacceptable for a leader. The “I’m sorry you’re overly sensitive” excuse is no better. It took me too long to accept that but thankfully my bride is a patient person. 😉

Now I know you would never use those “not smart enough” words but your tone can cause someone to hear them whether you use them or not. We subconsciously use that tone when we assign the blame for feeling insulted to the person who feels insulted. I don’t want you to take the “blame;” I want you to step up and accept responsibility and choose better words and a more leader like tone.

The best leaders accept 100% responsibility for the clarity of their communications. They make certain their words are appropriate, they make certain their words are heard, and they make certain their words are understood.

Leaders, or more likely, people merely in leadership positions, who say it is their people’s responsibility to understand what they say are just mistaken. They may be in a leadership position but they aren’t leading.

If everyone, or most everyone, that you interact with is frequently offended by what you say or how you say it, you are not a leader. I can say that with confidence because I can also pretty much guarantee that no one is following you and if no one is following …. well, you know the rest.

I’ve always said that what a leader does is far more important than what they say. The one problem with that sentiment is this: if you say enough stuff the wrong way your people will turn away from you before they have the chance to see all the good stuff you do.

Words do matter, how you say them matters even more!

9 thoughts on “How You Say “It” Really Matters

  1. Steve, excellent post! I’d add the best “communicators” to your comment above that the best leaders accept 100% responsibility for the clarity of their communications. We each are responsible to try and understand our hearer and communicate the message in a way that produces the desired result. Often, when we’re not at our “best” we don’t care if we inflict pain so we don’t make the effort to communicate or direct without offense.

    Or maybe that’s just me.

    Thanks again for the great post. Mike…

    1. Thanks Mike, I don’t think that’s “just you” because it’s at least me too. I just get careless with my communication sometimes or at other times a little too clever. Neither works out very well.

      The best communication is straightforward and well thought out. Anything else risks miscommunication and that’s when a whole bunch of problems begin.

  2. I agree. Leaders need to understand the behavior and values of the person they’re communicating with. Does the person prefer lots of dialog or little? Do they prefer lots of information or just the facts? Do they prefer accolades in front of the whole branch or would they rather receive a high five or an attta boy behind closed doors? It’s not just the message but also how it’s delivered.

    1. I once heard Jimmy Johnson, on the sad occasion (for me) of his Dallas Cowboys winning the Super Bowl, that he treated every member of his team differently. That was quite a departure from the normal “treat everyone the same” philosophy we usually hear.

      He went on to say he treats everyone differently because every human is different. He knew his people and how to communicate with them as individuals.

      It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten.

  3. Interesting fact about Jimmy Johnson. I’m finding the same is true about Phil Jackson’s success as a basketball coach. He got to know his players on a personal level.

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