The Power of Words

You remember the old refrain – “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me” right? If you ever tried to actually say that on a playground you don't need to read this post to know that the words of others not only hurt, but that when we said those particular words, they never seemed to work. In fact, sometimes things got worse! I think we can all remember moments when words cut us deep – especially from those closest to us, right? So let's just start by agreeing that words can hurt – and hurt bad.

But this isn't a post about all the pain you suffered as a child – nope, if you need counseling, this isn't the site for you. Instead, I want to share three ways that words can be incredibly helpful at work, and even at home. Before we dive in, I want to share with you the inside track on where I learnt some of this (much to my wife's regular embarrassment whenever I share this with people). One of the three observations you'll read below came from dog trainers. Yup, I learned tons from those great folks at pet stores that you pay to help you train your dog. And so we're really really clear, those trainers aren't ever really training your pet; they're training you. But that's for another post.

Rule #1: Consistency is Key

Having been trained by dog whisperers I now am much more aware of how other people talk to their dogs. (trust me, I'll get back to humans in a second.) You'll see them say things like, “get down” and “off” and “no” and “don't do that” and “you know you're not supposed to be on the couch” – all to mean the same thing – get off the couch. Dog trainers will tell you that dogs don't really learn English, they just learn vocal patterns and tone. So you need to say “off” the same way, each time, in the same context each time. Then, if you've bought a good dog, they get off the couch quickly.  Now, how many of you have a boss that shares action items at the end of a meeting and when you're done, and he's left the room, you're still wondering what exactly he's looking for? More importantly, how many of you have staff that report to you that wonder the same thing? The truth is that you're likely not to know – because they won't ever tell you.

At my workplace I made up a phrase (“done done”) that I use in one and only one way. It's the term for something that is complete. Not partially complete. Not almost complete. Not waiting for someone else to complete. Just plain complete. No other word comes after “done” except “done.” I use it in the same way, every day. So when I ask, “Is it done done?” everyone knows exactly what I'm asking and they can answer clearly – yes or no.

Rule #2: Choose the Right Moment to Speak

There are moments at work where I know, in advance, that my staff will get to a point of frustration. It's not that I like them to be frustrated, but I know it's a natural part of learning. They will take one particular approach to the way they work and it will work out for them for some amount of time. But eventually the side effects or ancillary consequences of their approach will become too much to handle. At that moment, and only when that moment is reached, can we have a really incredible conversation. It's incredible because they're ready to learn. They're tired of their approach, frustrated by feeling stuck, and are open to trying something new. (As an aside, until people are really open to something new, most feedback is useless.) More than anything right then, they need me to make some key observations about what they've been doing, why it's reached its natural limit, and then articulate a new way to do things. This conversation is typically one of those long ones that my staff remember for a long time. It's always one on one. But since everyone hits it, they can all look back and remember when they had the “talk.”

Here are some topics that regularly require a “talk”:

  • How to manage work/life balance and why longer hours is not the answer (and not something I want from them).
  • Why it's not a bad thing to bubble things up to their supervisor, and no it doesn't mean they've failed, and yes it will save you tons of time.
  • How to juggle 40 projects at once and still make people happy – without working all day and all night.
  • Why are some projects given to other people and why it doesn't mean they're better than you – in fact it may be a learning opportunity for them.

I can tell you that your preparation to have these kinds of conversations, often taking the unintuitive route (by not asking for harder or longer hours), is more important than anything else. I've had these so many times I could write you a script (for a huge fee, of course). You'll find your own way to share things, but being prepared and knowing how to hold your tongue until someone is ready to listen is critical.

Rule #3: There's Power in Naming

Walk up to a person and tell them they have a nice smile. Then watch – do they smile more? Yup. Walk up to a person and tell them you really are impressed with their hard work. Then watch, do they work even harder? Yup. Why? Because you've pointed a flashlight at something they do, something they're good at, and now they know it. They've heard it named. It's been articulated. And they can own it. So when that happens, they start living it out with more conscious thought.

With every team I lead, I look for the unique things they bring to the table and then I start sharing it with them.

  • You're really organized.
  • You really seem to be able to find the middle ground.
  • You always stay calm when others are frustrated.
  • I really appreciate how much planning went into this meeting.
  • You are one of the hardest workers on this team.
  • Have you noticed that others listen to what you have to say?

These aren't huge things to observe. I don't create posters or awards. But simple naming of behavior ends up having a profound effect on those around me. So keep your eyes open and make critically important observations that will change the nature of your team.

A Word for Home

These very same tools I've shared with you work just as well at home. My kids know what “done done” means every time I ask if they're room is clean. When interacting with my wife, timing is more important than word selection – especially if I'm going to suggest that she change how she's doing something. And with my kids, when I tell them that they're hard workers, they work harder. When I praise them for the things they naturally do, they perk up and start being more attentive to how they do them. My daughter is verbal. When I told her I really liked her vocabulary and how she used the right words at the right times, she followed up with her mom to ask her to teach her one new “big” word a day.

How do you use words to help you lead, managed and raise  your kids?