As a kid who happened to talk a lot, (and now an adult who makes a living speaking), I’ve learned through trial and error, that when I use certain words to influence, people move closer and get engaged in what I’m saying. At other times, I’ve used language that unintentionally pushes people away or disconnects them from hearing me during times of change.
I believe most things in work and life come down to the words we use, as they drive our interactions with others. Whether they are thoughts we think to ourselves or say out loud – words are powerful.
In an organizational setting, they can motivate your team OR discourage them. Words can’t change the reality of the situation…but they can alter how your colleagues perceive that reality, which has real implications for their work.
How we influence and speak to our employees and coworkers as they face challenges (both personally and professionally) can improve their outlook and, therefore, their future thoughts, actions, and behaviors. Choosing the right words is thus beneficial to the individual AND the organization.
A while back, I wrote an article titled Change Management: 6 Things You Shouldn’t Say and 6 Things You Should that focused on how we can alter our language to increase employee engagement and the chances of successful change. It is clear to me that, in the current COVID reality, it’s time to revisit the subject of influencing as it relates to today’s truths and stressors. If you read and find that you’ve been saying the wrong things for months now, that’s okay! I am also sharing influence tips on how you can alter what you say the next time.
How to Influence Change: Say This NOT That
1. Don’t say: “First World Problems.”
Sometimes when people tell us about their problems, we wonder why they are making such a big deal about such a seemingly small issue. The internet is slow; your microwave stopped working; you got a flat tire. “First world problems, Veronica!” you want to remind your complaining colleague. The trouble with this approach is that it negates the pressure of what that person is feeling at the moment. While in the big scheme of things, ‘first world problems’ may be accurate, that response belittles their experience.
Say This Instead: “That really sounds like it was hassle.”
Or something else that recognizes how they are feeling in the moment. Acknowledging what is going with someone at the moment, and just putting yourself in their shoes for a minute, keeps them engaged in the dialogue.
2. Don’t say: “Everything Will Be Alright.”
When someone comes to you with worries about something they are facing, in work or in their personal life, you may want to reassure them—which is a good thing! However, simply telling them that ‘it will be alright’ or ‘everything will work out’ minimizes the situation and may not even be accurate. It could be perceived as putting a positive spin on a bad situation, or as a simple platitude to keep them quiet. You don’t know if it will be okay. Sometimes things don’t work out. They are feeling the way they do because they are facing uncertainty about the future, and no matter what you say, your words can’t change the reality of that uncertainty.
Say This Instead: “Regardless of how this turns out…”
An approach like this one allows you to be in that uncertainty WITH them. To meet them where they are at. You recognize, with them, that none of us know what the future holds. However, whatever happens, you do know that you can support them. “Regardless of how this turns out, I’ll be here for you.” Or “Regardless of how this turns out, I’ll share the information with you.” Whatever is relevant for the situation. The greatest gift you can give someone in the face of uncertainty is that you will be with them, no matter how the situation plays out.
3. Don’t say: “At Least…”
It’s often said, we teach what we most need to learn. While I don’t believe that’s true all of the time, this past weekend it rang true for me. I heard myself saying, “At least you still have your job,” to my friend Mike, who was describing a difficult work-related situation to me. I immediately apologized and asked Mike to continue his story.
When we respond in this manner, we are usually trying to put a positive spin on the situation. While trying to cheer them up and remind them of what they still have is well-intended, what they most need at the time is probably just to be heard.
Say This Instead: “It sounds like that was difficult.”
Or something similar! Paraphrase back what you’ve heard. The situation really just requires you to listen and acknowledge what is going on for the other person. You can best demonstrate you are listening by repeating what they have told you in your own words, which can also clarify your understanding. You may also try asking questions to understand more, or asking, “Is there any way I can help?” (versus trying to diagnose the solution that you think they need).
4. Don’t say: “Can we…”
If it’s one thing that’s inspired me during this pandemic, is seeing how individuals, organizations, and businesses have developed innovative ways to deliver their services. They didn’t do it by saying “Can we..”
When you ask a question such as ‘Can we do this?”. The answer is simply “yes” or “no.” This close-ended response does not give us the information we need to expand our thinking and get innovative in our approach.
Say This Instead: “How can we…”
“How can we…” moves us to a solution focussed approach and expands our thinking to develop and create new ways of doing what we need to do. Influencing change works best with open-ended questions, such as “How can we make this happen?” This leads to innovative ideas and group solutions that are often better thought-out and more likely to succeed than solutions devised in isolation. I believe it’s during a global crisis like this, when we ask “How can I…?” instead of “Can I..?“ that you get unstuck during change and create purposeful action.
5. Don’t say: “You Should…”
When we use the word “should’ with others (or with yourself “I should’ve done this..”), it creates blame, guilt, and sometimes even shame. It also takes away the concept of choice. Everyone has a choice. You can choose not to do something the right way. There are consequences from that choice.
I’m not saying to ignore the ‘right’ way of doing certain things. What I’m saying is, when you use ‘should’ to influence someone to change their behaviour, it will disengage them from listening to you.
You can do something incorrectly and change it without making yourself “bad” or someone else “wrong”.
Say This Instead: “I’d suggest…” or “You could…”
When it comes to influencing change, erase the word “should” from your vocabulary. “You should do it this way,” thus, changes to “Next time you could do it this way, and the software will work better.” Or “Next time I’d suggest you involve the stakeholders sooner.” This approach keeps people open and more receptive to your ideas and keeps them open to changing their behaviour.
6. Don’t say: “This is… lousy. “ (You can insert your own negative word here! Terrible, awful, gloomy.)
Negative emotions creep into our language all the time. “This is a lousy report.” “This is a yucky day.” “This is terrible work.” “This was a disastrous evening.” The problem with this language is that it puts a blanket negative comment over the entire piece of work or the event. When you layer in negative emotion it clouds the facts. I’m not saying to put a positive spin on a bad situation by any means.
But if you say “This is a lousy report” and there are only 4 errors in it that need correcting, it’s not an accurate assessment of the report. The person receiving this information will have a hard time hearing you and you’ll have difficulty influencing them on the next steps.
Say This Instead: “This has a few errors.”
Although you may have an initial emotional reaction to something, it is important that your language skip the emotion and focus on the facts instead. For the examples above, you could say instead: “This report has a few errors.” “It’s a wet day.” “This work needs to improve.” “This evening could have been better.” Removing emotion from your vocabulary in these examples gives people an opportunity to listen and stay engaged without having to counter you with an equally powerful emotional response. Heightened emotion disengages people from your change and makes them harder to influence. On the other hand, presenting them with facts gives them something they can work with.
Influencing change requires a shift from how we may normally communicate in situations. When you practice removing these sayings from your vocabulary and substituting the suggestions, you will notice how people stay engaged in your conversations differently.
From the examples above, you can see how our normal responses often halt others’ ability to engage in change rather than facilitate it. Just in case you don’t believe me, when people use the above sayings on you, whether the ones to say or not say, gauge your reaction! Which ones leave you open to change and which ones not so much? Try out the suggestions above to influence change and watch the magic happen!