You can’t lead well unless you can speak well. Most people in leadership roles know this intuitively — you have to be a “good speaker,” whatever that means. Leadership is about communication.
But what does it mean on a very practical level?
I remember some of the core principles of college’s dreaded Speech 101, and I can recall some of the experiences in my junior-level Oral Communication for the Professions course. I received personal coaching before speaking to a crowd of 5,000+, which gave me some helpful tips. But, 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.
In ten points below, I share ten 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 can be used in personal conversations, meetings, talks with your team members, or interactions with your boss.
These are phrases packed with power.
1. I want to be completely transparent with you.
- What it says: I’m going to drop all pretense and shred of dishonesty. What I’m about to say is really important. I value you that much.
- When to use it: When you’re solving a problem, or stressing a significant point.
This cogent phrase is often expressed in a faulty way. People say, “I’m going be totally honest with you.” That one bothers me. Why? Because it suggests that 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, you can stress your transparency. Transparency between people is what draws them together. It’s an ingredient of friendship and camaraderie. You can’t be friends with someone without some level of transparency and opening up about life’s shared experiences.
Being “completely transparent” helps to draw your listeners in, and to help them feel the importance of what you’re saying.
2. I wonder if…
- What is says: I’m curious about it, and I’m curious enough to make this statement. I 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 you’d 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.
“I wonder if” becomes a soft, but effective way to press your point and advance your ideas.
3. Can I share a personal example?
- What it says: I’m going to share a bit of information that is personal. But before I do that, I respect your time enough to ask your permission. What I’m about to share with you is deep and meaningful. Please listen to my story.
- When to use it: When you are illustrating a point, supporting an argument, or teaching a life lesson.
The more personal experiences a person shares, the more people are drawn to him or her. 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, ask “Can I share a personal example?”
4. Let me just turn the question around, and ask you.
- What it says: You brought up a great issue. I really respect your opinion on it, so I want to ask you the same question. Please tell me your thoughts; I will listen.
- When to use it: Use this phrase when you aren’t sure of the issue, don’t have a clear answer, or want to help person you’re talking with come to an understanding of the issue that they’re facing.
One of the best ways to deal with questions is to simply turn them back around to the person who is asking the question. I’ve had this happen to me. I have a question that I think only the boss can answer, so I hurriedly scurry off to find him. I ask the question. And my boss flips it: “Let me just turn the question around, and ask you.”
Maybe he rephrases the question, or provides a different angle. Whatever the case, I am now faced with answering the very question I asked. A lot of times, I experience an or some breakthrough understanding of the issue.
This phrase helps people to think through their own problem, which is an essential ability. At the same time, it empowers them to make decisions on their own.
5. Let me show you some research.
- What it says: I care enough about this issue to do some hard work of finding facts. Here are some real world examples that prove 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 have provided yourself with two powerful resources of persuasion. First, you’ve proven that your point is worthy of time and research. Second, you prove your point by displaying that research.
Of course, this means that you have to do the research, so don’t neglect that prior 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. Remember, though, this is your idea. You came up with it, and we’re going to see how it works.
- When to use it: When a team member is proposing an idea, and you want to put it into action.
This phrase expresses trust in someone else’s contribution. You are investing her with a significant amount of decision-making ability and power. But at the same time, you’re reminding her that she is responsible for the action being taken.
7. How do you feel about that?
- What it says: I care, not only about what’s going on, but how you feel about it. You as an individual matter. Your feelings matter.
- When to use it: When you sense a person has an underlying emotion that they haven’t expressed, or when you are arbitrating a conflict between two or more 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.
We as leaders need to understand such feelings in order to make the decisions that are most effective. 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 a simple question, “How do you feel about that?”
8. This conversation has made me feel _____.
- What it says: I want you to know my feelings on the issue, and in particular, how this conversation has affected me. It’s been an important conversation, and I think you should know what I’m feeling.
- 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.
On the theme of 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 told him “This conversation has made me feel…” and, without defensiveness, I shared a bit of the pain.
He wasn’t exactly the world’s most sensitive guy, and that’s okay. But I think that my comment helped him stop and think about the tactless cathartic venting that he had spent a couple of hours engaging in. I wasn’t trying to make him cower or grovel. But since he had given me a couple hours of emotional torture, I thought I would share in response, my feelings.
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 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 that 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 have just shared is really significant, and it may change things. Now, I want to spend some time considering it.
- When to use it: When you are faced with a difficult decision that 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: “That’s a really great point you’ve made. I really need to think about that and not make a decision for the time being”
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 on that right now.
- What it says: I’m not omniscient, but I think I might be able to come up with something later.
- When to use it: This phrase buys you time to make a decision. At the same time, you’re expressing a modicum of humility by not pontificating right away.
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.
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 to 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.
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