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Say What You Mean: Why You Need to Communicate with Intention

Say What You Mean: Why You Need to Communicate with Intention

Communications can be fraught with complication. Perceptions are deeply personal, and culture can change the meaning of words and phrases to the speaker or listener. Individual vocabulary varies from person to person, so more important is the context in which a communication style is presented. Consider the response you might have when you witness an athletics coach scream at a poorly performing team or player. Now, consider how different you would perceive that style if it were a parent playing in the park with their adolescent. Instances of poor management communication are not rare. It’s part of basic leadership development to hone communication skills to maximize employee success.

Unfortunately, leaders in the corporate world can fail to recognize that leadership communication in one context may not be appropriate in a different one. This can often be attributed to two things. The first is very basic: general leadership communications training does not differentiate (nor should it) between leading in a corporate environment and leading in, for example, an entrepreneurial environment. The second is habituation: our language and communications styles are formed not only by our conscious decisions to use certain words but also, over time, the unconscious processes that allow us to speak quickly, seemingly without thinking. Generally, this is exactly how it’s supposed to work. But words have meaning, and we choose them for specific reasons. When your work environment changes, so should your communications style.

[Related: How to Be an Indispensable Leader]

Case Study

My client, we’ll call her Jane, was a senior VP at a global pharmaceuticals firm. Over the course of 20 years she advanced in her leadership career to her final position. This advancement was, in part, successful because of her specific manner of communication, at which she excelled. However, the structure of many corporate environments also means there is a specific hierarchy that, overtly or covertly, is reinforced from leader to subordinate. Overtly it’s pretty clear in terms of how work is delegated, who provides feedback, appraisals, and the like. Covertly it’s reinforced through language, i.e specific choice of words.

Jane left the corporate world and is currently the president of a start up, but she spoke to people as if she were still a corporate leader. This had a somewhat chilling effect at times. Jane’s corporate language, the choice of words that reinforced her position, were causing her partners to become defensive and stiff. This was not how she wanted to motivate them, but it never occurred to her that it was because of her choice of words. After all, for 20 years no issues had ever been raised on this.

What Jane Says

When Jane spoke to people and wanted to motivate them to come up with new ideas or when she wanted to offer an idea for consideration, she would say, “Why wouldn’t you just do…” or, “Why don’t you…” If you’re in the corporate sector, this statement might make a lot of sense. The questions are reaffirming of one’s position in the hierarchy. To ask a question in these words does a number of things with the person on the other end. First, it puts them on the defensive a bit. As a leader, this might be necessary. If a subordinate is on the defensive, you have the advantage to put forth your own ideas or requirements in such a way that the listener now has to defend why he or she wouldn’t do what you say. In addition, the listener, now in a defensive position, is focused on past behavior/reasons/excuses, leaving him or her wide open for you to insert your recommendation with little to no resistance.

For Jane, this language worked before but is having the opposite effect in the start up environment for three reasons:

1. Forward thinking ideas must be nurtured. Having business partners on the defensive is not an engaging environment. It’s stifling and can make people hesitant to share new ideas... and new ideas are the life’s blood of any start up.

2. Disagreement is necessary. Being open and sharing ideas or working through them is how success happens. Sure, Jane has great ideas of her own but some of the best ideas are the one’s that are made in collaboration at this start up. In addition, her language put other’s off to her ideas regardless of how great they were.

3. Jane doesn’t really care why someone did or didn’t do something. The reality is, Jane was using language she was habituated to. She was not being intentional. It was an unconscious style unrelated to what she was really interested in. Jane didn’t care why or why not. What she really wanted was to share her thoughts so a great idea could be developed and implemented.

Jane’s Success

The question I had for Jane was, “What are you really asking?” It was clear that she was not interested in the hierarchical mechanisms that were once part of her daily life. Nor was she particularly interested in the underlying motivations of other people’s behaviors. Her intention was to nurture ideas and relationships. She needed her language to be in alignment with her intention.

Together, we crafted a more intentional communication style. Jane had to practice at first but became skilled at sharing ideas and asking the right questions: “Have you thought about…” or, “I have a suggestion around what you said.” Just a few words made a big impact.

[Related: 6 Ways Leaders Can Communicate Authentically]

Jane cares deeply about the people she works with and wants everyone to be engaged. Small modifications to her communication style isn’t just about creating an environment where everyone can thrive. It’s also about using intentional language. Jane wasn’t being intentional and she was asking questions for which she did not care for the answer. A minor change made a huge difference in getting results.


Dolores DeGiacomo is president of Power Up! Consulting, she focuses on success behaviors and helping people get out of their own way. She is the co-author of the upcoming book The Ultimate Career Pocket Guide.

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