Language and Leadership – Practical

In this post, we looked at the key role that our language can play in our leadership and we explored a couple of models that perhaps say something about the role of language and help us understand the language that we use a bit more. However, in all likelihood if we understand this then we may be beginning to identify language that we find unhelpful or want to change. So, it’s all well and good understanding this but how on earth do we go about changing it!

two people talking at a coffee table

Well, The key to transforming our language is to recognise that

  • We are using the language
  • It’s unhelpful to us, or we seek to change it

That all sounds pretty obvious right? Wrong! Or at least it’s not always obvious. I’ve worked with many people who use unhelpful language and are totally unaware of it. They may use the same phrase every time they start a presentation, or talk to someone else, or pickup the phone and they don’t know it. So the first step is a step towards being aware. Here are some ideas that might help you do that.

Getting others to let you know

Colleagues, friends or even your partner probably have a good grasp of how you use language, and are also a good safe ear to listen and feedback. Perhaps try discussing with them and getting them to let you know. If you are not aware of language that is unhelpful, then start by asking them “can you tell me if there is any language that I’m using that upsets you / feels negative / you think holds me back. Listen and discuss their feedback and the have them watch out for that language.

Analysing a presentation

Many times I have found that people use unhelpful language when they are speaking in meetings or providing a more formal presentation. Language around self-negativity often comes out here. Being humble is one thing, but sometimes this spills over into self-doubt and negative image re-enforcement. If you write out your presentations in long hand then reading them back with a view to how the language supports your narrative and yourself can be helpful.

Listening back to meeting recordings

It can be very useful to listen back to recordings of meetings or presentations. Especially nowadays when many video meetings or presentations are streamed and recorded. I find that many busy people don’t watch them again, but move onto the next task. It can be very interesting and beneficial to watch them, perhaps with a mentor or supporter and look at how your language, and even body language are supporting or hindering you.

The next step once you are aware is to analyse the language you are using to really understand how it is serving you. Here there are many tools to help such as coaching, journalling, working with a supporting manager or colleague.

The key steps here are to

  • Be aware of the trigger. It is the first sentence that you say in a meeting? Or a response to a particular person, or style of person? Is is the opening or ending of a prevention? Or the last sentence before you put down the phone?
  • Be clear on the replacement you are making, and be conscious that you are replacing it. So, if you always start a reply in a meeting with “I’m not certain, but…” then plan to replace this with “In my view” as an example. Practice that phrase so it feels very natural and see yourself mentally replacing the trigger phrase with the replacement phrase.
  • Get feedback. If you struggle with analysing your success in shedding the negative language then get feedback from someone and be honest about any progress you are making.

So let me finish with a couple of worked examples of how we might identify our negative or unhelpful language and how we could reframe things

Example 1

I really hate it when John is aggressive in meetings

This might be an example that shows our own hate or frustration. It’s specific to a person and it also uses the word “hate” which is pretty strong. Perhaps we could reflect on how useful this is to us (and possibly to others and even John). Of course, he may be aggressive, and there is a separate conversation to be had about dealing with this, but focusing on the language specifically.

  • “aggressive” – is a negative view of John. How will that make him feel?
  • “hate” – is a negative reflection on your own behavior. Do you really hate it.

Perhaps instead we could rephrase this as:

I prefer it when our meetings are challenging yet empowering

This still indicates a desire to change, and it also deals with the fact that sometimes challenge (but not aggression) can be good. Again, looking at the language:

  • ”prefer” – Is more positive, recognises the role of choice.
  • “challenging yet empowering” – frames the need for challenge against the importance of not putting people down.

Example 2

This example is a very common phrase that seems to imply positivity, but does it?

Trying to make things better

  • “trying” – might imply that it’s difficult, or long?
  • “better” – suggests the current state is not ideal..

How about this as a replacement phrase?

Persuit of excellence

Perhaps you don’t like that, and perhaps it is a bit more “management speak” but I’m trying to illustrate that different language can give a very different sense of purpose. Here the word pursuit implies some energy and is more positive than trying perhaps. Excellence implies a goal and seems more concrete than “better” in the first example.

Finally, here are a couple of very practical ideas that you can use to try and recognise the re-enforce the role of language. Why not give them a try.

Option 1 – Fridge Magnet (doesn’t have to be fancy) or notice in prominent place.

Language you are going to replace and what you are replacing it with

Option 2 – Journal – Keep a daily journal where you notice the language you are using and reflect on how appropriate it was and what effect is had.

Further reading

Awaken the Giant Within – Tony Robbins –

What to say when you talk to yourself – Shad Helmstetter –

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