Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

5 Phrases That'll Automatically Make You a Better Leader (and Earn You All the Respect)

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Carpenters work with wood. Composers’ medium is sound. Business leaders, however, work in words.

Think about it—whether it’s persuading a prospective client, laying out your vision for your company, or motivating your staff, the primary tool at your disposal is language. Which means the words you choose carry a lot of weight. It might not seem like such a big deal exactly how you phrase a request or choose to express a concern, but with so much riding on how you express yourself, even little changes to the language you use can have big impacts.

That might be a little scary—a simple slip of the tongue or ill-considered word choice can really cost you—but the flip side is extremely empowering. Being a better leader sometimes comes down to something as simple as tuning up the words you use. Just formulate your thoughts a little better and you’ll instantly see an improvement in results—no lengthy leadership courses or massive personal changes required.

So what sort of expressions can have these magical effects? The blog of leadership app Lighthouse offered some great suggestions recently, rounding up a handful of small phrases that can have big impacts on your leadership abilities, including:

1. “That Sounds Important to You, Let Me Write That Down.”

You’re busy and, in the whirlwind of busyness, it’s easy to forget things. When that happens it can be bad news for you, but it can also be terrible for your team’s morale. “When managers forget things, fail to keep their promises, or become disorganized, it hurts not only them, but their entire team. This can cause team members to build up resentment (‘I can’t believe you forgot...again!’) or lose trust (‘Why bother? They won’t remember what I tell them anyway’) Both are fatal to morale, motivation, and productivity for your team,” Lighthouse explains.

Adding this simple phrase to your most-used-expressions list not only helps you remember important information but also signals to your team that you value their contributions. When you’re paying attention—and your team knows it—everyone wins.

2. “Yes, And…”

The basis of both great improv comedy and great leadership is building on the ideas of your teammates rather than tearing them down. That’s why this little phrase is so important. Make a conscious switch from “Yes, but…” to “Yes, and…,” Lighthouse advises.

“One of the quickest ways to unintentionally hurt motivation is by using statements that transition from agreeing with or praising them to adding the condition of ‘...but.’ When you say something like, ‘That’s a great point, but...,’ you can make people feel like you were merely placating them to get to what you cared about after the ‘but…,’” says the post.

“Opting for ‘and’ rather than ‘but’ is a “subtle change with a big impact. By switching the ‘but’ for ‘and,’ you actually alter the entire second half of the statement from deflating to motivating,” it concludes.

3. “Tell Me About the Last Time That Happened.”

This phrase is most useful in the context of dealing with problems or mistakes. “If there’s a problem, getting context on the situation can help provide a better solution. It can help remove bias and ensure you don’t jump to conclusions, whether you’re dealing with two sides of an argument, or just getting to the root cause of a problem. It’s easy for people to jump right to what they think is the answer when they come to you. Rather than jumping right into it, pausing and learning more can help everyone,” the post explains.

4. “…Yet.”

Lighthouse isn’t the only source of these small but mighty phrases. Author Ben Casnocha advises adding the word ‘yet’ to negative feedback, for example. On his blog he’s written: “Suppose your boss pulls you aside and tells you: ‘You don’t have the right skills for the project.’ Then suppose a different situation, where your boss tells you: ‘You don’t have the right skills for the project, yet’ or ‘You don’t yet have the connections to make this deal happen.’ The word yet makes all the difference in the world. In the first example, you feel like a dud. In the examples with ‘yet,’ you feel like you may not be ready now, but you could be in the future.”

5. “Let Me Repeat That Back to You.”

Kitt Hodsden, a founding director of Hacker Dojo, offered this suggestion on the Pastry Box Project recently, recommending it for dealing with conflict in any context, from romantic relationships to disagreements at work.

“I was trying to explain to my dev lead what problem I was having that day. I wasn’t sure how much background to give. I wasn’t sure how well I had explained my frustration. He asked me to listen to him explain back to me what I had said, and I realized I had explained it well enough that he understood. He could help unblock me on the problem,” she offers as an example, noting that whatever the situation, “listening, and then repeating back what I heard, in my own words, does wonders for letting the other know my level of understanding, for letting the other person know they have been heard, and for helping the two of us move toward a better understanding.”

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