I once had an instructor who would reiterate one particular lesson about communication over and over. He would always say, “use precise words precisely.” And while that phrase generated a lot of perplexed looks from a young and immature audience of students at the time, over a decade later, those words remain with me today.
Our words matter. They are powerful. Words impact our messages, affect our ability to influence others, and shape how others receive us. And this applies to every kind of relationship. Today, I have many mentees and junior leaders entering stages of life where they are considering and pursuing marriage. And while I’m certainly no expert on marriage after only six years, many close mentees do seek marriage advice from my wife and me. Our first response is always that how we speak to one another and the language we use together matters. Our words matter in leadership, intimate relationships, with colleagues, our kids, and anyone we do life with every day.
So, today, let’s explore 10 specific ways we can practice communicating more intentionally in any role we fill – as leader, follower, colleague, spouse, parent, mentor, and friend. You can call these strategies, habits, or whatever you like, but these are specific things you can integrate into your behaviors today to use precise words more precisely. So, let’s get into it.
I’m Josh and welcome to the 3x5 Leadership podcast where we champion intentional leaders who create significant impacts. In this show, we share simple, practical strategies to help you live, lead, and learn more intentionally. You can learn more about us and check out our various resources at 3x5leadership.com. Thanks for joining us today.
How we communicate with others affects how they communicate with us. And it percolates down to how they communicate with others. And within an organizational setting, that norm affects our culture, which ultimately drives our results. A little intentionality in how we talk with one another can do a lot to shape how we live, work, and enjoy being one another.
Consider the difference between these two statements, both which aim to initiate a conversation about feedback that a supervisor intends to share with an employee.
In attempt 1, the supervisor says, “Jesse, why did you challenge Bethany’s idea in the project meeting this morning the way you did? You made her feel invalidated in front of the whole team. You always do this at meetings, and it ruins our team’s productivity.”
Now, let’s look at attempt 2, where the supervisor presents the same feedback in a different, more intentional way. Here, they might say, “Jesse, can you talk me through what you were thinking when you chose to challenge Bethany’s idea at the project meeting this morning? I’m not sure how she felt, but I know I would have felt pretty invalidated and embarrassed if you did that to me in front of the team. And I don’t think this is the first time this has happened. Maybe we should talk about this a bit to ensure we productively explore ideas during our meetings? What do you think?”
So, it certainly sounds like Jesse’s behavior needs to be addressed. But in attempt 1, if I was Jesse, I’d feel pretty guarded and defensive if my supervisor said it that way to me. I ALWAYS do this? I’m RUINING our productivity? But I’m not meaning to! Now I’m more worried about the feedback than I am about exploring a solution.
However, in attempt 2, I feel like my supervisor is my partner in discussing this and wants to help me explore a solution for me, for Bethany, and for our team. I don’t feel like I’m being targeted or blamed like I did in attempt 1.
Our words matter. How we structure sentences send signals. Pair those with our tone and non-verbal gestures, our seemingly similar messages can be received in two very different ways.
So, if our words and how we use them matter so much, we should address how to communicate better. Today, we are going to explore 10 specific things we can do to help us communicate more intentionally. And I want to start by helping us mentally organize these strategies before we dig into them.
Think of a pyramid that is split into three horizontal layers stacked on top of one another. The first two strategies we look at are mental approaches that we should employ as we enter conversation with others. They are ways to frame our perspective before we even start communicating. These serve as the foundation of our pyramid.
Next is the middle layer of the pyramid, which builds upon those mental approaches. These are four dos and don’ts to keep in mind as we engage in communication. Just think of them as simple, general rules to follow.
And finally, the tip of the pyramid is four specific phrases we can use in a variety of different conversations. These are phrases that I regularly employ to make conversations productive, inclusive, healthy, and fair. And I think they can serve you well as you work to engage in intentional conversation with others, no matter the situation or type of relationship.
Now, let’s start with our pyramid foundation and the two mental approaches to maintain. Remember these before we even begin to engage in dialog with others. Strategy one is to always seek to understand the other person first, and THEN be understood by them. So many arguments, disagreements, or hard conversations go poorly because we are more focused on winning or making our point known than anything else. When we care more about getting our point across, we fail to be considerate of the other person, to respect them, and appreciate the whole situation – to include their perspective. So, before we initiate a conversation, let’s pause, take a breath, and remember to aim to understand them first before we attempt to have our views understood. It not only shows care, consideration, and respect for the other person, but it prevents us from prematurely diagnosing the problem and presenting a solution, which likely does not even touch the heart of the issue. We so easily have a tendency to rush in and want to fix the issue with quick advice. But in doing so, we often fail to truly diagnose the issue, understand the heart of the conflict, or fully appreciate the other person’s perspective and needs. Moreover, as Stephen Covey claims in his book, the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, when we really listen, we become influenceable. And being influenceable is the key to being able to influence others.
For strategy 1, let’s focus on questions. How can we ask more questions, better questions, to appreciate the other person’s side of things? How can we pour into them just a little bit longer to see them, appreciate them, value their perspective, and understand the situation before we rush in with our own thoughts or solutions? Seek to understand and THEN be understood.
Strategy 2 aims to help us work with those that frustrate us, that get under our skin, or simply seem impossible to have productive conversations with. It’s for those in our lives that make us think, “oh I just CAN’T with them!” How do we be the bigger person and still try to love them and not judge them? Strategy 2 leads us to ask, “what need is this person looking to satisfy with their behavior right now?” This is a healthier, more productive, and caring approach to take rather than judging or devolving the conversation, playing into the other person’s antics.
What do I mean by this question of “what need are they trying to fill?” Here’s an example. I once was having lunch with a few work colleagues and during our conversation, the topic of our recent organizational holiday formal came up, which I had the opportunity to serve as the MC for. One colleague at the lunch started on a mini rant about how he heard that all my jokes weren’t funny, fell flat with the audience, and that I was not really successful in hosting that evening. And while I know it wasn’t a perfect evening, I definitely felt I was successful in my MC duties that night. The other colleagues at lunch reinforced that sentiment, giving kind words of affirmation and support. The point obviously isn’t about how I did at MCing that night, but about how I chose to respond to my ostracizing colleague there at lunch. Rather than getting annoyed, frustrated, or playing into the degrading conversation, I paused and asked myself, “what personal need is he filling right now by saying these things to me?” In that hasty thought process, I realized that his comments were likely more about himself and his possible need to feel validated by the group through tearing me down a bit. Asking that question and taking that pause allowed me to be more patient, gracious, and even open to the feedback. So, I encourage you to build a habit to, in the moment, take a pause and ask yourself “what need are they fulfilling through this behavior right now?” It will help you keep the conversation productive.
Ok, now we get into the middle layer of our conversation strategies pyramid. These next four strategies focus on some general and broad recommended dos and don’ts in conversation.
Strategy three is to always focus conversations like disagreements or conflict on the issue at hand and to NOT make it about the other person. Bottom line, never attack or make the problem about the other person’s character, intentions, or emotions. Think about how the conversation would progress following a statement like, “I hear that you’re upset about the plan to visit my parents and family this holiday instead of yours,” versus, “why are you bringing this up again? Why do you have such a problem visiting my family?” If it were me, the latter leads me to become much more defensive and likely to respond in equally petty ways, spiraling the conversation further and further out of control. Focus on the topic and never make it about or attack the other person. It is possible to argue with care, consideration, and love.
Next, strategy four takes a step further to ensure we don’t over generalize our statements. Go back to the previous argument about where the family spends the holiday. A very common type of negative comment usually sounds like, “why are you bringing this up again? You ALWAYS have such a problem with visiting my family! And I don’t understand why.” Adding generalizations like, “you always” or “you never” automatically leads others to move into defensive mode, feeling like they have to justify themselves or worse, lashing out in return. Refrain from using overgeneralizations like ALWAYS and NEVER when we are addressing other peoples’ behaviors.
Strategy five, now, encourages us to use what I’ll call collective pronouns versus individual ones. In situations where you are sharing feedback or asking questions to better understand a topic, consider using pronouns like “we” or “us” instead of “you.” Let’s look at the scenario from the beginning of the episode with Jesse’s supervisor addressing how he confronted Bethany in the team meeting. If we adjusted the comments to use collective pronouns, it would sound like this, “Jesse, can we talk through what we were thinking when we chose to challenge Bethany’s idea at the project meeting this morning? I’m not sure how she felt, but I know I would have felt pretty invalidated and embarrassed if you did that to me in front of the team. Maybe we could talk about this a bit to ensure we productively explore ideas during future meetings? What do we think?”
By integrating a few key collective “we” pronouns into that statement, the supervisor sends subtle, but important signals that they are Jesse’s partner in this discussion. Jesse and his supervisor are on the same team now, working together to find a solution. It’s not Jesse versus his supervisor, it’s Jesse exploring the topic together. Adding those signals of inclusion and partnership can really help encourage a more vulnerable and productive conversation.
Ok, strategy six, which is the final do and don’t for this part of the pyramid is to NOT initiate conversations, whether verbal, over text message, or email, with short statements of “hey we need to talk,” or “come see me,” or “hey can we talk?” I don’t know about you, but these attempts at initiating conversation frustrate me. Can you not give me ANY context to the conversation so I can frame it, get some perspective, or maybe even prepare a little bit? Initiations like this show either laziness or a lack of respect from the sender. They can create overwhelming anxiety and an emotional burden on the recipient too.
So, instead of “we need to talk” or “come see me,” let’s try to even add just one simple sentence of additional context to our statement. It doesn’t have to be complicated either. It can be one sentence like, “hey, XZY has been on my mind, and I’d like for us to talk about it if you’re open to it.” Something like that gives me clarity, context, and puts me more at ease. I’m better able to welcome the request and respond confidently.
Now, these final four strategies make up the tip of our conversation pyramid and are phrases that I like to use to positively contribute to conversations. And some are about helping us to listen better, not simply just talk better.
Strategy seven is a favorite phrase between my wife and I, that we use often and learned from Brene Brown. The phrase is, “the story I’m telling myself is…” This phrase signals to the other person that I am sharing how I see it, or that I am filling in the gaps of what still remains unsaid between us right now with my own perceptions. That is a clear way to communicate our own perspective to someone else, but in a non-threatening way. It invites the other person to fill gaps, to validate the perspective we shared, or attempt to reframe it for us. It’s inviting, not attacking. So, consider “the story I’m telling myself is…”
Now, strategy eight is a close relative to the previous strategy, but offers a simpler approach than the full phrase of “the story I’m telling myself is…” That whole phrase may not be always appropriate in the moment or people might feel uncomfortable using it. Instead, we can look to use phrases like, “I feel…” or “how I see it is…” These often achieve the same effect of inviting the other person to validate our perspective or help reframe it, but just in subtler ways. These are great alternatives to the earlier shared don’ts of attacking the other person’s character or overgeneralizing too. Instead of projecting onto the other person with comments like “you always” or “why do you…”, we can be vulnerable by sharing how we see things first to invite the other person to join in our vulnerability. I’ve often found that vulnerability begets vulnerability.
I do have one caution with this strategy though, especially with the phrase “I feel…”. This can be a hard phrase for certain populations like women to successfully employ in the workplace, unfortunately. I once had a female mentee who was in a new management position where she had a new 100-person team reporting to her. And in her early experiences, she began to conflict with one of her male direct reports who seemed to regularly challenge her decisions. In attempting to engage the issue in a healthy, productive way, she used the strategy of saying “I feel that…” to share her perspective. But this mentee found that the strategy backfired on her, with the more aggressive male direct report responding with comments like, “why do you have to get emotional about this by sharing your feelings? Why can’t we just focus on the issue?”
While hearing about that afterword was frustrating for me, it helped me to appreciate the disparities that different demographics can experience in these type of situations. Demographics like gender, race, age, experience, or rank within the organization can all affect how others receive us. Though I share these strategies to hopefully enable you to lead more productive and positive discussions, there may be dark sides to these based on who they are coming from. It’s worth being cognizant of that.
Strategy nine is about sharing feedback! Giving and receiving feedback can be some of the most sensitive type of conversations we engage in. Because it is so un-normalized in our organizations, the novelty of feedback when it does happen makes us uncomfortable, like we are in trouble. Feedback is hard. So, if we are in the situation to deliver feedback, I encourage us to make it as safe, comfortable, and welcoming as possible to set conditions for a great discussion around it. My preferred way to start that conversation is by asking the question, “can I share some truth in love?” A request to share feedback worded that way sends three important messages. First, it clearly transitions the conversation, allowing the person to know that without a doubt, we are entering into a deliberate conversation. Second, it communicates that we intend to share some hard truth, but it is exactly that – truth. It is not drama, emotions, subjective perceptions, or unhelpful advice. We are focused on getting to the root issue and disclosing the truth between us to make us better. And third, this is all done out of love. Love for you, love for the team, and a desire to see both become better. And like several other strategies so far, it is an invitation for a great discussion.
Finally, strategy ten is about listening. What can we do to show that we are listening, are engaged, and care about what they are sharing? For me, I turn to four simple phrases. And I say them often. They are: “that makes sense,” “I hear you,” “that’s valid,” and “that’s fair.”
Though no more than three words, these affirmations send powerful signals that we see the other person, that we validate them, support them, and appreciate their perspective. And often times, that is much more important than what we actually say. So, remember and use phrases like “that makes sense,” “I hear you,” “that’s valid,” and “that’s fair.”
I hope these ten strategies can serve you well as you endeavor to improve how you communicate with other people. Our words matter. What we say and how we say it send signals. These all impact how we work with others and shape how they experience us as leaders, their work, and life. And like we explored at the beginning of this episode, how we communicate with others affects how they communicate with us. It affects how they communicate with one another. And that affects the relationship or our team culture. It improves relational intimacy, cohesion, and productivity. Through our communication, we can improve peoples’ quality of life.
So, I encourage you to try these strategies out at work, at home, and with friends. Work incrementally. You certainly do not need to start trying all of the things right now. If one of the strategies really resonated when you heard it today, start there! The emotional pull will be compelling enough to get you started.
As we close, three quick notes. One, if you like today’s episode, please give us a like, a review, and a follow. Two, if you’d like to learn more about 3x5 Leadership and subscribe for new content updates via email, you can do that at our website, 3x5leadership.com. And finally, if you’re interested in supporting 3x5 and getting even more from the team, we encourage you to check out our Patron at Patreon.com/3x5leadership.com. That’s P-A-T-R-E-O-N.com/3x5leaderhsip.com.
Again, thanks for joining us today. Thanks for your leadership. And thanks for showing up every day to be an intentional leader for others.
I’m Josh and until next time, take care and lead well.