Team Productivity

10 Powerful Phrases Managers Can Use to Improve Leadership

Daniel Threlfall
December 10, 2018
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Leadership is all about communication. But what does that mean on a practical level?

I remember some of the core principles of my Speech 101 and Oral Communication for the Professions college courses. I received personal coaching before speaking to a crowd of 5,000+. But, as helpful as those classes and experiences were, I don’t feel like they gave me some of the core skills needed to communicate effectively.

What really mattered, I discovered, was conversation. The day-to-day exchange of information. The chatter around the water cooler. The small talk before the meeting. The huddle in the cubicle. The update in the elevator. These small speeches were where leadership became evident, culture was formed, and success was born.

Here are 10 simple phrases that can shape your conversational ability and, by extension, advance your leadership. Whether you’re a project manager, a senior vice president, or an individual contributor to your organization, these phrases are packed with power and can be used in personal conversations, meetings, talks with your team members, or interactions with your boss.

powerful leadership phrases

1. I want to be completely transparent with you.

What it says:

  • What I’m about to say is really important and I value you enough to drop all pretense.

When to use it:

  • When you’re solving a problem or stressing a significant point.

This phrase is often expressed in a faulty way: “I’m going be totally honest with you.” That one bothers me. Why? Because it suggests they aren’t normally totally honest with me. Why do they have to assert their honesty as a prelude to what they’re going to say? Honesty should be a given.

Instead, to make a strong point, stress your transparency. Transparency draws people together. You can’t build a trusted working relationship with someone without some level of transparency and opening up about life’s shared experiences.

Being “completely transparent” helps draw your listeners in so they feel the importance of what you’re saying.

2. I wonder if . . .

What it says:

  • I’m curious about it and want you to think about it, too.

When to use it:

  • When you’re making an argument or proposing a solution that might receive negative feedback.

The phrase is tentative enough to keep you from sounding like a know-it-all. You’re admitting, in an understated way, that you don’t have all the answers. However, you do have a crack at it, and you’re going to say it.

The “wonder” verbiage helps spark a bit of curiosity in others, too. If you’re “wondering” about something, you might get them wondering, too.

When you’re in a meeting and would like to offer a solution, begin by saying “I wonder if…”

  • I wonder if we could move Jason to a project manager role.
  • I wonder if our focus on design might be overshadowing the functionality of the device.
  • I wonder if we need to look at conversion optimization before we raise our prices.

This simple phrase becomes a soft, but effective way to press your point and advance your ideas.

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3. Can I share a personal example?

What it says:

  • I’m going to share a bit of information that’s personal but respect your time enough to ask your permission first.
  • What I’m about to share with you is deep and meaningful. Please listen to my story.

When to use it:

  • When you’re illustrating a point, supporting an argument, or teaching a life lesson.

There’s a reason why celebrity gossip is a multimillion-dollar industry. We love to hear about personal experiences, even if their last name doesn’t end in “-ardashian.”

Personal examples are far more compelling than generic platitudes or exhortations. When we tie personality up into our conversation, it moves people.

Besides, humans are wired to love stories. When you tell a story, people want to listen. It doesn’t matter if it’s a short story or an epic novel—people want to hear it.

So the next time you’re telling a team member how to improve his coding or why he needs to come to work on time, give this phrase a try.

4. Let me turn the question around and ask you.

What it says:

  • You brought up a great issue. I genuinely respect—and want to hear—your opinion on it.
  • Please tell me your thoughts. I will listen.

When to use it:

  • When you aren’t sure of the issue, don’t have a clear answer, or want to help the person you’re talking with come to an understanding of the issue they’re facing.

One of the best ways to deal with questions is simply to turn them back around to the person who’s asking the question. I’ve had this happen to me. I have a question I think only the boss can answer, so I hurriedly scurry off to find him. I ask the question, and my boss flips it.

Maybe he rephrases the question, or provides a different angle. Whatever the case, I’m now faced with answering the very question I asked. A lot of times, I experience some breakthrough understanding of the issue.

This phrase doesn’t just help people think through their own problem. It also empowers your team to make decisions on their own.

5. Let me show you some research.

What it says:

  • I care enough about this issue to do the hard work of finding facts.
  • Here are some real-world examples that support what I’m trying to say.

When to use it:

  • When you’re trying to prove your point.

Rather than convince people with power moves and strong-arm techniques, use data to show the way. Convince them through numbers, research, and legitimate information.

When you go to the work of collecting data, you’ve provided yourself with 2 powerful resources of persuasion:

  1. You’ve proven your point is worthy of time and research.
  2. You can show research that supports the point you’re trying to make.

Of course, this means you have to do the research, so don’t neglect that first component.

6. Let’s try it your way.

What it says:

  • You have a great idea, and I’m willing to implement it.
  • I’m your partner on this.

When to use it:

  • When a team member proposes an idea and you want to put it into action.

This phrase expresses trust in someone else’s contribution. You’re empowering her with a significant amount of decision-making ability. But at the same time, you’re reminding her she’s responsible for the action being taken.

7. How do you feel about that?

What it says:

  • I care about, not only what’s going on, but how you feel about it.
  • You matter to me as an individual.

When to use it:

  • When you sense a person has an underlying emotion they haven’t expressed.
  • When you’re arbitrating a conflict between people.

Businesses purportedly run on numbers and data. We make decisions logically. Yet none of us can deny the significance of feelings in the ebb and flow of organizational life. People are driven by feelings as much as anything else.

As leaders, we need to understand these feelings to make the most effective decisions. Feelings can be strong, and they can boil over into rash behavior or lead to faulty decision-making. A truly intuitive leader will understand such feelings and respond accordingly.

In personal conversation, you can change the entire tenor and attitude with this simple question.

8. This conversation has made me feel _____.

What it says:

  • This conversation has been important. I want you to know my feelings on the issue and, in particular, how this conversation has affected me.

When to use it:

  • When you’re wrapping up a conversation and want to leave the person with a takeaway.
  • It’s sometimes effective for mollifying a conflict with someone.

When it comes to transparency in conversation, I suggest that you use this phrase, not as a manipulative technique, but as a way to personally disclose your concerns.

Once, I had a personal conflict with an individual. This person—older, more powerful, more well-known, more respected—spent a couple of hours pointing out all the flaws in my character and conduct. It was a tough couple of hours for me. At the end of the conversation, I used this phrase and, without defensiveness, shared a bit of the pain. I think my comment made him stop and think about the venting he had just spent a couple of hours engaging in.

That’s just one example of where this phrase can be used. You can also use it in a non-conflict-driven context. For example, if you have a really good meeting with a client and made some progress, you can say, “This conversation has made me feel really good about where our project is going this June. I think we’re going to see some remarkable success.”

9. That’s a really good observation, and I’d like to spend some time reflecting on it before we go any further.

What it says:

  • I’m not capable of answering this question, but I want to think about it.
  • What you’ve just shared is really significant and may change things. I want to give it serious consideration.

When to use it:

  • When you’re faced with a difficult decision you need to think about.

Leadership isn’t all about instant decisions. Sometimes, you have to think things over. One phrase that gives you the runway for doing so is the “That’s good, and let’s pause” phrase.

This phrase has two-fold power. First, you’re acknowledging the input of the person you’re meeting with. Second, you’re buying yourself time to think about it.

10. I really don’t have an answer for that right now.

What it says:

  • I’m humble enough to admit I don’t know the answer but am willing to look into it further.

When to use it:

  • When you need to buy time to make a decision or come up with a solution.

Honesty is always the best policy, even when your honesty leads you to say, “I have no clue.” It’s better to admit ignorance than pretend you have knowledge in some area that you don’t.

The qualifier “right now” leaves the door open for you to come back and say, “I wonder if…” to provide a proposed answer.

Use authentic conversation to build trust with your team

Leadership consists of far more than just simple phrases. But unless you have some degree of conversational effectiveness, your leadership cannot thrive.

These phrases, when used with authentic intentionality, can help you communicate better. From understanding feelings to reversing questions to venturing answers, your role as a leader is to conduct yourself in a respectful yet effective way—one conversation at a time.

Further reading: 10 Principles of Servant Leadership (and Why It's Our Favorite Style)

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