I’d like you to think of an influential teammate or leader you’ve recently worked with; someone who managed to sway you towards a specific decision or action.
Now, try and pinpoint exactly what qualities they displayed, or what actions they took that helped convince you, or influence you, to take that particular decision.
You may say it was their confidence, or authority, or knowledge and expertise. You may say it was their natural ability to get consensus from different stakeholders. And you would be right.
Let’s dig a bit deeper. What’s behind this confidence or ability to get consensus.
Think about the words they used in their email or in the meeting. What language did they use that allowed them to increase the perception of their expertise? What language did they NOT use?
We all know that influential people are more likely to be heard and respected, and therefore can easily drive change around them. But being an influential leader has nothing to do with titles and has everything to do with how you engage with others. Critical to this, is the perception your audience can have of you based on the language you use.
As a coach and a behaviour change consultant, I’ve always been fascinated by language patterns and how these can convey what’s going on in your mind subconsciously. The words you use can express your authority as a leader, and yet can quietly chip away at your credibility, and therefore your ability to inspire others.
So, if you want to increase your credibility and level of influence at work, here are 7 words or phrases I’d recommend you trim from your vocabulary.
“I think we should move ahead with this project” or “I think you’ve got a good idea” or “I think we should do something different”.
Harmless enough, right?
I know many professionals, women in particular, often use “I think” in their emails and expressions at work because they think it helps ‘soften’ the statement or opinion or recommendation. They fear that without it they could come across as too brash or authoritative.
The issue here is that “think” doesn’t sound definitive. It subtly saps the power of whatever follows it. “Think” derives from an Old English word (“þencan”) meaning to “imagine, conceive in the mind, consider, meditate.” In other words, you’re subtly suggesting that you’re still considering the recommendation you have just proposed, and that you’re not too sure of it.
Not the best perception to leave your Steering Committee audience with is it?
The best thing to do is axe it completely from your vocabulary at work. If you have an opinion, and want to influence your audience, then say it with conviction.
“How about we try something different?”, or “I have an idea!”, or “That’s an excellent proposal”, or “I’m confident your plan will work!”
I remember on a flight back from Spain (a LONG TIME AGO now), I was intrigued by the way Flight Attendants asked people to stow their handbags away, or put their seat upright. Aside from the fact that they had to repeat their request to about 70% of people on board, each Flight Attendant would always start their request with “I need you to…” or ‘I’m going to need you to…”.
The word “need” was unnecessarily pleading and disempowering on their part. It made me question the perception of power and authority they were portraying to these people who thought they could get away with bending the rules in plain sight.
You see, when a leader says, “I need this report as soon as possible,” they conjure up a feeling of dependency on the part of the speaker, rather than of obligation and responsibility on the part of the team.
To project more confidence, swap it with a firm but polite request like, “Please have this report to me by next Friday”, or “Please can you help me complete this task”.
While we are on the topic of requests, I’d like to talk a little about “want”. Many leaders believe this verb signifies strength – that they know what they want. I’d argue that “want” is similar to “need”; It suggests the speaker is wanting or lacking in some way. It certainly won’t influence people around you to do what you want.
“I want you to improve the quality of your work”. Although the statement suggests the speaker is not getting the quality required off the employee, it doesn’t state any facts, nor does it provide any concrete feedback that can influence the employee to do anything differently.
“Your work on this report needs to be higher quality”, is a much clearer statement that puts the onus on the employee.
Similarly, if you tell your manager, “I want a raise,” you’ve made an emotional appeal and signalled a lack of confidence in the evidence of why you deserve it.
Try using verbs that signal conviction such as “I believe” or “I’m convinced” with your reasons or evidence: “I believe my pay and performance during the last year make a strong case for a raise.”
“Our best guess is that our profit for 2021 will be marginally better than last year”. We can all play the guessing game, but how influential will that be with your stakeholders?
Not only does “guessing” convey a lack of knowledge, but it also communicates tentativeness and a lack of confidence in one’s own opinion or recommendation. If you’ve been in front of the Executive Committee before, you’ll know they don’t like the guessing game.
Reframe your sentence and share what you do know more confidently.
“We expect our profit for 2021 to be ahead of last year’s,” or, “Our results should surpass last year’s.”
If you aren’t sure of the results, that’s fine! Don’t lie or exaggerate. Rather than “guess,” just share what you know confidently. Even if that’s a simple “I don’t have the information with me now, I will get back to you on this”.
In an attempt to motivate and encourage a team, many leaders often share what they “hope” to achieve with their teams. Statements such as “I hope we’ll get that sale” or, “I hope you’ll be able to take on that assignment”. Although this could be something you say to your co-worker or friend, it not an appropriate phrase when trying to influence people around you.
Rather than inspiring confidence, “hope” has a prayer-like quality, suggesting that the speaker has little control over the outcome, and therefore is not very influential.
Instead of saying you “hope” that your team will bring in a client sale, tell them, “I’m looking forward to a win,” or “I know you’ll give it your all.”
These statements are much more empowering and far more motivating. They show your confidence in what your team can already do, rather than subtly questioning their performance in the future.
So, you’re chatting with your colleague about the events of the week and they ask you if you are going to attend the next town hall meeting. If you answer, “I suppose so,” you quietly indicate that it doesn’t really matter to you whether you go or not, or you’re not really engaged.
There’s absolutely no situation you can be in at work where conveying your indifference and inertia will improve your influence or authority.
Instead, express your passion and your level of engagement for example, “Yes, I’ll definitely be there, I want to hear what they have to say.” You may not think this matters when you’re talking to a teammate, but it does. News travels fast, and if the words you repeatedly use suggest a “don’t really care” attitude, it’s only a matter of time before your reputation and influence begin to dip.
7. “LIKE I SAID” or “DOES THIS MAKE SENSE”
Finally, I can’t end this article without calling out my favourite phrases that many end their emails with “Like I said”, or “Does this make sense”.
Not only is it condescending to your reader, it also makes you sound too self-assured or even defensive.
These phrases can make you sound as if you are either, not confident in your ability to get your point across, or worse, condescending to your reader by questioning whether you have been understood.
Just make your points clear and concise the first time around. Don’t repeat things and never underestimate the intelligence of your reader!
Language is a powerful force in all your conversations. Even the smallest of words that you use every day can have a huge impact on your perception as a leader. Cut these seven verbs from your lexicon, and you’ll start to notice your power and influence increase.
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