How to be an expert in leadership languaging

Leaders can sometimes forget the importance of their language. Especially when they are under pressure, which is when language is most important. It can be a game changer, when it comes to improving or negatively impacting a relationship. 

A significant amount of my coaching work is around how to use languaging more effectively. And how to use language to connect more with team members. Recently, I was working with a senior manager, who was worried about having a conversation with one of their leadership team. The manager was worried that it was going to be ‘relationship ending conversation’.  

Only because the manager hadn’t worked through (at that stage) how to effectively convey their message, in a way that was not triggering for the other person. Once we were able to talk through it, and talk through the approach, the manager was confident that the conversation could build the relationship, not break it. 

Good leaders realise that “individuals are a complex patchwork of social norms, cognitive conditioning, and personal constructs, which are all powerful in shaping a person’s identity.” (Credit: Fortier, 2022). People’s perspectives shape how they receive a message. 

This is not to say that you shouldn’t deliver bad news, leaders have to. Regularly. It is so that that you can deliver bad news with the right intent and get the right outcome. If you are committed to that. In the book, Fierce Conversations, Susan Scott explains that relationships are built on conversations. Conversations are the relationship. So, if you want a good relationship with your team, choosing your languaging carefully, and leaning into connection, as well as direction, will help you, no end. 

The following might not be a comprehensive list, though these top three things will change your languaging and your connection, if you can nail them… 

1. Have more questions than statements  

Having bigger and better questions is the key to connection. When you are asking questions, it shows that you are more interested in the other person, and you are being more interested than interesting. It is very difficult to get to know someone if you are talking at them, not with them.  

Asking questions is a skill set. It is simple, but not easy. It takes practice. The better quality the question, the better quality the answer, and the better quality the conversation. The thing about questions is that questions are the main skill of a coach. And leaders are coaches. All good coaches understand that questions are not just open vs closed, or direct vs vague. Good coaches and leaders understand that the best questions are Socratic questions. The “Socratic approach to questioning is based on the practice of disciplined, thoughtful dialogue. Socrates, the early Greek philosopher/teacher, believed that disciplined practice of thoughtful questioning enabled the student to examine ideas logically and to determine the validity of those ideas,” (credit: Wiki). 

Thoughtful questions, like what people are experiencing. Why they think that is happening for them, and how they think they can respond not react. Other ways to use thoughtful questions is to start with which approach do you think we should take, could we consider other options, or would another option be worth planning out? Thoughtful questions allow you to linger in the conversation. They allow you to find out more about the person that you are chatting with, and you can get a deeper level of understanding about what is going on for the human you are interacting with.  

Even if you are not an expert at thoughtful questions (yet), just asking questions is the most important thing.  

Leader action: Develop the art of asking bigger and better questions, and then work on asking Socratic questions. To build a deeper connection. 

2. Listen to understand, not respond 

I could not tell you the number of leaders that I coach, in the fine art of listening to understand. This is about not finishing sentences for others. Not looking as though you are just waiting for your turn in the conversation. Not having a pre-recorded script or a default response to ideas or opinions. And definitely not drifting off in the conversation in your head, until the other person is finished talking… 

Listening to understand is the big thing that you can do to value someone. If a team member ever says they don’t feel valued, what that means is that they don’t feel heard. They don’t feel understood. And this is an easy thing to change. 

My tips for you are to hang off every word. Literally. Listen with an open heart and an open mind. Be interested in what the person is saying. Find a way to engage your brain in the conversation and focus intently. Look into their left eye and connect. Paraphrase, with, so what you are saying is. Or even linger in the conversation with silence to show you are processing information. Sometimes it is important to let silence do the heavy lifting. 

The language that you want to use is language like help me understand, so what you mean is, or what is an example of that. These statements (or questions, depending on how they are asked) are clarifiers, and they demonstrate that you are engaged, and that you do want more information before responding. 

Leader action: Develop the skill of listening and clarification, so that you can listen to understanding, not to respond. To build a deeper connection. 

3. Think fast, talk slow 

One of the most important skills of good leaders, and good communicators, is the skill of being able to think about the emotional experience that someone else is having while you are in conversation with them. This is the skill explained by Daniel Goleman, and it relates to emotional intelligence. And social emotional awareness and then social emotional regulation. 

What that means is that you can understand what is happening for the other person, and change your tone, your volume, your pitch or even your language to suit the situation. There are times when you need to deliver bad news or challenge a team member. Or there are times when you want to deliver good news and recognise a team member.  

During potentially high emotion conversations, your ability to be aware of emotional states and adapt to the situation to create more or less emotion is the highest level of communication skills that you can develop as a leader. 

This skill is important because every word has the potential to be a trigger for another human. Triggers are things that cause an emotional response. Common trigger words include ‘no’, ‘I disagree’, or ‘you’re wrong’. The word ‘but’ (try using ‘and’) is a major trigger for a lot of people, but it is used frequently in high pressure situations.  

Now there might be times when you choose to use words like these, but be aware that when people are triggered, they are not going to be at their best in the conversation. As a leader, try to choose words that are less triggering.  

Leader action: Be acutely aware of the experience that others are having when they are with you. And change your strategy accordingly. To build a deeper connection. 

In summary, leadership languaging and communication is about asking questions, listening to understand, and thinking fast and talking slow. 

Leadership languaging and communication is as much about connection as it is about direction. 

And could you please do me a favour, and share this with leaders everywhere? This is an important topic for leaders. 

And of course, please click the image below if you’d like to chat about what leadership means to you.

If you would like to learn more about Anton or The Guinea Group, please click hereto book into Anton’s calendar, to:

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About Anton

Anton has dedicated his working life to helping leaders to upgrade their mindset, upskill their leadership, and uplift their teams! With a focus on helps leaders to better lead under pressure. Anton is an entrepreneur, speaker, consultant, bestselling author and founder of The Guinea Group. Over the past 19 years, Anton has worked with over 175+ global organisations, he has inspired workplace leadership, safety, and cultural change. He’s achieved this by combining his corporate expertise, education (Bachelor of HR and Psychology), and infectious energy levels.
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