Influential Communication: Small Words, Big Impact

When is asking for a favor bound to cause you problems? When you’re the boss and that’s the way you frame every request. I know. I am a reformed “favor” boss. As a manager, the words you use, even in seemingly inconsequential exchanges, impact how your employees determine what kind of leader you are. The spotlight is on even in the small moments; maybe even especially in the small moments.

As a manager leading a team for the first time, I had a tendency to couch every request with the term “Can you do me a favor and___?” Fill in the blank with words such “copy this,” ” complete by tomorrow,” or “develop a strategy.” Whether it was a request for an administrative task or a major assignment, I used that seemingly innocuous phrase without fail.

I didn’t think I was insecure in my new role but I was and that phrase was a dead giveaway to everyone but me. I’m not sure how long I was in that pattern before I read an article that talked about the difficulty that women in business often have finding their voice. I immediately recognized myself and worked hard to reposition how I made requests. I saw a positive change in how my reports responded to me when I switched to being polite but confident in my requests, replacing “Can you do me a favor” with a simple “please.”

Most of us are aware of the power of words in our business communication but we often only pay attention to careful use of language in situations that seem “important;” customer or client service, new business meetings, presentations. In our day to day interactions, we fall into habits that may be unintentionally sabotaging our influence. The trick is to recognize what signals you are sending out with those seemingly small, daily interactions and make sure that the influence they are creating is positive.

Here’s a few words or phrases that might have an unintended influence:

  1. “That looks great but” – not everything is great. A good leadership tendency is to be generous with praise but, often times, it’s easy to default to giving praise even when it isn’t appropriate. If you overuse superlatives, they lose their meaning. Some people will only hear the “that looks great” part and some will only hear the “but.” Either way, the expression can’t cover every assignment. Be deliberate and specific with feedback.
  2. “ASAP” – are you the person that feels that everything is on fire? If you are, you will quickly become the little boy, or girl, who cried wolf one too many times and the deadlines you set will become meaningless. Instead, carefully consider what priority assignments really have and set realistic and specific deadlines.
  3. “You’re not going to like this” – well, I’m certainly not now. Even if you have not so great news to deliver, lead with a potential solution not with a phrase that is going to immediately put your boss or team on the defensive.
  4. “Have you tried/thought of” – when a team member brings a problem to you and your first response is to be the one who comes up with the solution, you’re sending the signal that your employee is not empowered or capable of being responsible for finding solutions to their own challenges. Instead, use a response such as “what are some possible solutions,” “what do you think we should do?” Put the solution ball in their court. It signals that you know they can do it.
  5. “What he/she means is” – don’t be the office mouth piece. Clarifying other people’s comments saps their confidence and drives them crazy- even if they don’t tell you-and if you’re their boss, they won’t. Let people explain themselves.
  6. “My Bad”- if you want to sound like a teenager who stayed out too late, the phrase is perfect. Otherwise, strike it from your vocabulary. Instead, simply use the more formal “I apologize” which sounds more sincere, respectful, and professional
  7. “Can you do me a favor” – Assigning tasks should never be considered part of the favor pool. Instead, simply assign with a “Please”

Take a few minutes and think about whether you have a word or a phrase that seems to unconsciously seep into your default, everyday language. Now consider the influence it might have. If it’s positive influence, keep it. If it’s negative, toss it.

Sandi is a Leadership Speaker and Strategist who loves to work with people to push beyond average and unleash their Deviant Leadership.
You can follow Sandi on Twitter @SandiCoryell.