In today’s fast-paced business environment, the need for clear communication and mindful language is more important than ever, and leaders who fail to recognize this can end up harming their team’s morale and productivity.
Below, 16 Forbes Coaches Council members share tips for leaders to harness the power of mindful language and explain why their performance hinges on how people perceive their words.
When communicating with their team, leaders should be clear, inclusive and open to feedback. To be inclusive, leaders should use language that shows respect for all team members and avoid language that may be discriminatory or exclusionary. Failure to be mindful of language can lead to mistrust and conflicts. Leaders who are open to feedback can continually improve their communication.
Adjust your language style and choice of words to the desired intention, audience and outcome. An example could be the target setting. Avoid corporate jargon and make it easy to understand what is expected. What does your team need to know in order to see key performance indicators as important objectives as well as their opportunity for growth? How can you communicate better to increase their engagement and curiosity?
Leaders need to learn to pause a few beats before speaking or responding. This can help them become more thoughtful and intentional about communicating. If they’re not thinking before speaking, they will likely communicate impulsively or in an overly emotional way, risking the chance they’ll come across as abrasive, reactive or inarticulate.
One way leaders can be more mindful of language when communicating with their team is by speaking in an inclusive and respectful manner. For example, a leader should avoid using offensive language or making sweeping generalizations about certain groups of people. Failing to do this could lead to a breakdown in trust between the leader and the team, with team members left feeling unsupported and disrespected.
Focus on your positive intent instead of the risks or issues you’re trying to avoid. This reframing changes everything. Your energy will shift to the outcomes you want, and why, versus what you don’t want. This will naturally change how you show up in the conversation. Alternatively, if you focus more on what you’re worried about, you are more likely to hesitate, overthink and seem disingenuous.
Leaders need to be aware of who they are communicating their message to and adjust the message to the audience. This can include using simpler language for non-technical team members or adapting language to different cultures or backgrounds. Crafting the message from the perspective of the receiver increases the chances of it being accepted and builds trust.
The effectiveness of a leader’s communication will show up in how people engage with what they say. Leaders who are mindful of their language avoid using words such as “you,” “them” and “they,” as these are alienating. Instead, use more inclusive words, such as “we” and “ours.” When giving feedback, use responsible, descriptive language. For example, “I noticed when…” or, “The impact that had on me was….”
Words create worlds. Leaders can be mindful of the analogies and metaphors they use to clarify their points. Using these in the context of pop culture or sports, for example, can be effective only if they are relevant to your team. Members of cross-cultural and multi-generational teams can be left behind if leaders continually use metaphors that don’t resonate with them. Ask your team to contribute their own metaphors for the situation to foster understanding.
The language a leader uses—from their word choices to their tone—should foster conversation and engagement. Often, leaders focus too much on declarative or informative statements, as opposed to communicating in a way that leads to thoughtful dialogue. If your team is responding as a teenager would, with the standard “okay,” it might be a sign they didn’t hear your message or aren’t fully engaged.
A great tip for leaders is to avoid using the word “but” when speaking to their team. For instance, a leader may say, “You did well, but there are opportunities for improvement.” The word “but” negates what was previously said and introduces a contradiction, which can unintentionally create a limiting mindset. Instead, use the word “and” to encourage a growth mindset and influence positive change.
Leaders can be more mindful of language by using positive and solution-focused language that promotes collaboration and growth. Failure to do so may result in creating a negative and unproductive atmosphere, leading to demotivation, conflicts and decreased productivity. The language used by leaders can influence the team’s mindset and behavior, and hence, it is important to choose words carefully.
When communicating, most of us focus on what we want to express. Effective leaders will instead focus on how their message will be received by others. As an example, starting an email with “I’m confused” may be received by a highly confident team member as an opportunity to help clarity and assist, while someone who is less secure may perceive it as a passive-aggressive insult.
Be mindful of which medium should be used to minimize miscommunication. In a hybrid world, there are many options: verbal only (email, Slack and texts), verbal with vocal tones added (phone) and then with visual cues added (in-person or virtual). Emails and texts are easy, but also the most prone to miscommunication. For example, you Slack, “Report due on my desk by 3” just because you’re leaving early. Yet, the employee feels yelled at.
I ask my leaders to wear a colorful ribbon around their dominant wrist—the brighter the better. This simple trick and prompt reminds them to be more mindful of the words they choose. When a leader isn’t conscious of their language, they set themselves and others up for potential miscommunication and confusion.
Communication is not just about conveying a message. The choice of words is key to the level of “believability” of the message. If the leader comes across as not authentic, it may build distrust because the message is at odds with what is perceived. The consequence of using ambiguous words and dodgy language to side-step is a leader being canceled and not taken seriously.
Do not assume your team understands the meaning of words that you use. People understand words based on their life experiences and previous professional employment. Always clarify the meaning of terms if you want to be on the same page and not face disappointment. For instance, do not say, “I value punctuality.” Instead, say, “Be there five minutes before the meeting—that is what I consider being punctual.”