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The Words We Use Say a Lot

You’ve asked one of your direct reports to see you in your office. It’s about a recent mistake they’ve made and you want to provide some feedback and maybe a little coaching. They enter the room sheepishly and slump down in the chair opposite your desk.

You don’t want to beat around the bush, so you ask, “What the heck happened with the Smith account?”

They remain quiet and then softly reply, “I thought it was the right thing to do.”

You’re getting a little hotter now and you shoot back, “Why would you think THAT is the right thing to do?”

If you’ve been on either side of this conversation, you are not alone. We all have been either the giver or receiver of what some people call “feedback.”

Obviously, these are just the opening lines of a more crucial feedback conversation, but notice how this all started?

It began with an accusatory question and continued in that same fashion.

You can imagine this conversation did not get much better after this opening gambit.

So what happened? And how can we do better when we seek answers and want to provide good feedback and coaching?

Well, there are a few different aspects to ensure more successful conversations, but nothing is more important than the words we say and the way we say them.

It’s not just the words we say, but whom we say them to.

Have you ever noticed there is a difference between how we speak with our high performers and our poor performers? You may not always realize that you are using different words, but it is pretty likely you are.

What do I mean by this? I’ll explain.

Let’s look at some questions you might use in a conversation with a poor performer.

“Why did you do that?”

“Why did you do it that way?”

“Why didn’t you ask for help?”

These are questions we ask when we are frustrated or angry. They can sound accusatory, mean, and often are not helpful.

Because we may be exasperated, we spit out these incendiary questions as if we are scolding a child. Probably not the best way to encourage better performance in the future.

Now compare those with the types of questions we ask high performers.

“What do you think went wrong?”

“What could be done differently?”

“What can I do to help you in this project?”

These questions elicit thoughtfulness, insight, and collaboration. They build better relationships and stronger trust by letting the recipient know you care about their thought process and you want to assist them in their improvement.

So why do we speak with our poor performers so differently?

Probably because we have them labeled in our minds as “less than”, “unreliable”, or “just not very smart.”

This kind of thinking gets us into trouble and actually exacerbates the potential for issues in future performance. We just assume this behavior will continue and so we take the easy way out and just scold them, instead of help them.

So what should we do to create a more empathetic, understanding relationship with our poor performers?

Treat poor performers like they have the potential to be high performers. Change the words you say and the questions you ask.

You’ll notice in the first examples when dealing with our poor performers, we used the word “why” in our questioning. And in the second examples when working with our high performers, we used the word “what”.

This is intentional. The words “what” and “why” have very different connotations when heard in a stressful moment.

The word “why” strikes at the heart, at the ego, asking us to look inward at our own character for the reasons we behave the way we do, while the word “what” is more logical, more rational, and asks us to search beyond ourselves for something we may not know yet.

Using the word “what” instead of “why” helps us bridge the gap between poor performance and great performance. It demonstrates that we are standing in a non-threatening, supportive position further encouraging the receiver to be more open to learning and seeing us as a trusted collaborator.

It takes the burden off of us as having a character flaw, and instead inspires us to think outside of themselves and search for new possibilities and unseen opportunities.

Beyond using the word “what”, and not “why,” we can also use causal language in our conversations.

Causal language describes cause-and-effect relationships, and it includes words like, “because”, “thus”, “since”, and “as a result of.”

Let me give you an example using causal language. “The reason your score was so low was because you need more training.”

Here’s that same conversation without causal language. “You scored low. You need more training.”

Feel the difference?

The second conversation is more abrupt and feels like a gut punch (“You scored low. You need more training.”), whereas the first example using causal language (“The reason your score was so low was because you need more training.”) feels more like a gentle hug.

It conveys empathy and understanding, and it shares the responsibility across both parties in looking for steps to move forward. This mutual understanding and shared responsibility sets the foundation for collaborative work performance.

Leading others is a difficult job and dealing with poor performers can test us in a number of ways. But using the word “what” instead of “why” in our questioning, and implementing causal language when providing feedback, helps us create an environment of better thinking, better relationships, and better outcomes.

So how will you approach your next conversation with a poor performer? How will you try to see them as having the potential to be a high performer? And how will you use the word “what” and causal language to pave the way for expansive thinking and thoughtful collaboration?

Be a better leader. Treat all of your feedback conversations as if you were speaking with a top performer. Be supportive. Be encouraging. Be empowering.

Help others by using the right words to reduce resistance and inspire expansive and collaborative thinking.

Everyone has the capacity to be a top performer. It’s up to you as a leader to help your people get there.

Your Mindful Moment:

The right words said the right way in the right place at the right time ensure no one is left behind.

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Jimmy Glenos is a Work/Life Performance Coach. He helps people achieve their biggest dreams, reach their highest energy, and attain total work/life fulfillment. With over 30 years of hospitality and health care experience, Jimmy brings deep knowledge and insight to help people lead at work and succeed in life.

2 thoughts on “The Words We Use Say a Lot

  1. Critical thinking requires digging into issues deeper than responsive thinking, so understanding your audience is important. Some people are fine with invasive inquiry and learn from the experience; however, people can be overly sensitive and take inquiry as a personal attack so your approach makes sense. One of the fun things about making a good leader is learning from those you lead.

    1. So true. Learning from those we lead is a great experience. So often we are given the gift of learning from others, but sadly squander it because of our own self-importance, rank, or position. We can always find the gift when we approach others and situations from a mindset of gratitude.

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