For Leaders: Three Phrases that Have Never Worked in the History of Humanity
If you’re using these phrases, you’re setting yourself up for failure.
Most of the leaders I work with understand the big stuff – the need to focus on planning strategically; the importance of understanding and addressing customer needs; the ongoing task of constantly aligning the organization around the company’s Mission and Values – continually updating that Mission and those Values as the market conditions and employee populations change.
But many leaders are missing a key component in communicating with their teams to engage them, motivate them, and get the most out of them.
In my work , I've found there are three phrases that many people use that just... well, they don't work.
And while I'm quite certain these phrases feel "right" to say, they don't ever have the desired effect, and they can really derail communication.
Here they are:
“Don’t Be Mad”
This little gem is generally used to precede some sort of bad news, and I totally get it. I understand that you’d want to set boundaries around the other person’s emotional response before you deliver some sort of unpleasant news.
But what you’re doing is excluding them from the conversation. You’re also signaling to them that they are about to hear something you like but they won’t – something that will make them feel threatened, challenged, or in some way unsafe. (Which kind of guarantees that they will feel these things!)
Has “Don’t be mad” ever worked? I don’t think so. I think it has just the opposite effect: It puts the other person on the defensive AND it signals that you place your emotional safety above theirs. (So, what you’re really saying is, “I can’t handle your anger about this, but you have to handle what I’m going to tell you.”) So, it adds a level of complexity and an oppositional dynamic to the conversation that doesn’t need to be there.
When you try to set guidelines around what the other person’s response could or should be, you’re making it about yourself and not them
Guess what? It’s not about either of you; it’s about the business. (Isn’t it? If not, why are we having this conversation in the workplace?)
When you’re talking with someone at work (or anyplace, for that matter), there’s a good chance that you’ll need to talk, work, or deal with them again (duh!). So you want to look at every conversation as an opportunity to advance the relationship.
A phrase like, “I get that this is important to you,” is a much better way to go. It indicates that you care about the other person, and it opens lines of communication – putting you in a better situation to have a conversation.
When you have bad news, deliver it with respect and with empathy. Frame it around the business needs or the business situation. Give your news, and provide business context around why things are the way they are.
If it’s appropriate, apologize without qualification.
Don’t throw someone else under the bus. At best, this makes you look weak and possibly shady. At worst, you pit yourself and the person you’re talking to against the company or a third party – and that is a really bad way to do business. Or relationships. (Actually, both.)
“Listen to Me!"
Ah, if only this one worked. But it doesn’t. Seriously, have you ever said this and had it worked? Maybe if you’re a professional hypnotist…
Telling someone to listen to you is disrespectful. It oversimplifies things, and it’s dismissive of the other person.
You have to earn the right to talk by asking questions and listening.
Again, look for the opportunity to advance the relationship during the conversation. A great way to do this is through developing understanding. If you assume everyone wants to be understood and respected, you’re going to be a better leader. Period.
So, start with a hypothesis about what the other person wants, and put it out there in a curious manner – rather than as a statement of fact.
It might go something like this, “It seems like you’re really concerned that this will have a negative impact on your team…” Or “I get that sense that you feel really strongly that the right way to go is XYZ.”
If your hypothesis is correct, you’ll get a “Yes.” If your hypothesis is incorrect, you’ll get a clarification from the other person. Take either and run with it. They're both an opportunity to advance the relationship through understanding. The “yes” is an agreement, and earns you the right to continue. The clarification is a chance for you to paraphrase it back (we call this “reflecting” or “reflective listening") and it also gets you a “yes” when you get it right, which is an agreement – and which lets you advance the conversation. It’s a win, either way.
Once you’ve determined the other person’s concerns – and are able to summarize them accurately to the other person – address those concerns as best you can while providing business context around the decision or information. Sometimes, it’s as simple as, “I understand you feel this isn’t the right way to tackle the problem. I’m getting direct instructions from the client that this is the way he/she wants to go, so we have to find a way to satisfy the client and make the best of it. Are you with me?”
Once you’ve established that you’re on the same team – through understanding – you can work together to create a plan to manage the situation. Even if that plan is, “We’ll deal with it and we’ll make sure we avoid it in the future.”
“Stop Crying” (Or its cousin, “Calm Down”)
Ah – this is by far my favorite phrase that has never worked. Ever.
It’s just a recipe for disaster
People don’t want you to manage or dictate their emotions. They want to be heard and understood. And the more you tell them to stop crying - or stop yelling or stop being upset - the more they’ll cry or yell or be upset.
When people are upset (or elated, even), they want to be understood and met where they are. That doesn’t mean that if someone is crying or yelling you need to cry or yell, too. It means you have to acknowledge and validate their emotional response – even if you don’t agree with it or even understand it.
You can’t communicate with someone when you’re trying to boss them around about their emotions. “Stop Crying” is condescending and counter-productive. (As you may have observed, it also doesn’t work on kids.)
I know that you may feel that the behavior (such as crying) is manipulative. And you may be right. Or it might just be one of your hot buttons. But calling it manipulative, or responding to it in anger isn’t an effective strategy for successful communication. Deal with it as though it’s honest, and remove judgment or shame. That’s the best way to advance the relationship.
Acknowledge the emotional response in a respectful manner. Try a simple phrase like, “I can see this is important to you,” or “I can see that you feel strongly about this.”
This kind of statement acknowledges the emotional response and validates it – and it leaves the other person with their self respect intact. The other person feels heard and understood without feeling shamed. Be empathetic.
You might want to offer the person some time to think about their feelings and the situation. Try saying something like “I can see you feel very strongly about this. Why don’t we take some time to mull this over and come back together to discuss it?”
(This is a different approach from “Take some time to pull yourself together,” which is another judgmental – therefore inflammatory – phrase.)
Crying and yelling are both defensive responses. The person feels threatened or frustrated. Your telling them to stop the behavior isn’t going to stop them from being defensive, threatened, and/or frustrated. It’s only going to exacerbate the situation.
Consider the possibility that your response to their emotions could hinder your ability to handle the situation as your best self. Crying or yelling may push your buttons.
If you know these things push your buttons, have a phrase at the ready – something you’ve practiced and memorized, like, “Okay. I can see this is really important to you. It’s an important topic, and we need to discuss it. Let’s take some time to think about it and get together later to talk it out.” Practice it. Memorize it. Use it when you're at your wit's end.
If you can help someone through an emotional outburst to move to a business solution through understanding, you’re going to build a lot of trust. And trust is something great leaders need to develop to move the business forward. That doesn’t mean you have to become the office therapist. It means you’ll become known as a leader who accepts that people are emotional creatures in situations where they need to pretend they have no emotions. And people can feel safe around you because you keep it together and help them through it.
When you get really good at navigating around these phrases, you can coach others in these same methods. It’ll be worth your while, I promise.
Leaders who know how to have successful, productive conversations around emotional topics are better leaders. They show respect for their teams and they reframe emotional responses into business terms – while still acknowledging that they’re dealing with people, who sometimes get emotional and just plain stressed out.
“Don’t be mad!”
“Listen to me!”
“Stop crying” or “Calm down”
If you can eliminate these three phrases from your vocabulary and replace them with language that shows respect and understanding – and moves the relationship forward – you’re going to be a much better leader.
Remember that the people who care deeply about your business – who are the most invested in success – may also often be the most emotional when it comes to work-related topics. So don’t write them off. Help guide them back from strong emotions to the business at hand, with respect.
I promise it’ll be worth it.
Mitch Lippman is an executive and organizational coach and facilitator, focusing on leadership development, and diversity and inclusion - based in New York City and Provincetown, Mass.