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Make the hard-to-swallow easy-to-digest

Honesty has to be woven into the fabric of trust. Without trust, as we know, influence seldom occurs. However, there is value in moderation. Honesty that is not couched in compassion may actually weaken your influence. It may even cut away the fragile threads of trust you have worked hard to establish. As an influencer, […]

Honesty has to be woven into the fabric of trust. Without trust, as we know, influence seldom occurs. However, there is value in moderation. Honesty that is not couched in compassion may actually weaken your influence. It may even cut away the fragile threads of trust you have worked hard to establish. As an influencer, you have to find the appropriate way of saying what has to be said and saying it in a way that does not offend.

Say What You Mean

Consider the understandable (and probably justifiable) strength of a new secretary’s assertion: “This filing system has got to go.” She is saying exactly what she means. However, the honesty of her observation may prove to be insulting to the person who originated the existing filing system. Toning down the strength of our assertions, as appropriate, still allows us to speak sincerely but not abrasively. An alternative: “This filing system certainly is an easy one to learn and to maintain. However, I have thought of a few ways we could improve upon it, based on what we did in my other company. I’d like to explore improving upon what we have.”

Mean What You Say

A fine example of speaking your mind without alienating your listener comes from New York Times sports writer John Kieran. Dissatisfied with the salary he was earning and determined to quit if he didn’t get a raise, Kieran marched into his boss’ office and spoke a mere 14 words: “Mr. Ochs, working for the Times is a luxury I can no longer afford.” Fourteen words, but enough to get him the raise he wanted.

Despite trust-busting experiences we may have had in the past, most of us remain willing to give others the benefit of the doubt and to trust again. But we are a bit more cautious the second or third time around. We expect to take people at their word. And where their word proves unreliable, we quickly withdraw the trust we had been willing to extend. The message for influencers is clear: if you cannot follow through, don’t make the promise. Better to promise less and deliver more than to promise more and deliver less.

You can gain practice here with saying what you mean, but saying it so that listeners want to follow your lead. Lee Iacocca, for example, has commented that the language of leadership consists of “strong, simple words that tell people things they don’t want to hear. It’s a leader’s job,” he asserts, “to get people to believe things they don’t want to believe, and then to go out and do things they don’t want to do.”

While such reluctance is not part of every influence situation, it is part of a great many. The words you choose to convey your message will either invite involvement in the change you are effecting or will distance your followers from it. In the following exercises, think of what you wish you could say, then reflect on what you want to happen and what you don’t want to happen. Finally, fashion a message, using strong and simple words, that touches upon what your audience may not want to hear or believe. The message should be persuasive enough to get them to do things they probably don’t want to do.

1) Here is what you want to say: “This coffee room is a mess. How can you people eat in such a pigsty?”

Here is what you want to happen: Employees will assume some responsibility for keeping the room clean.

Here is what you don’t want to happen: You don’t want one person to get stuck with the job. You don’t want others to be so resentful they make it dirtier than it is.

Experiment with making your message forceful but not alienating. To add some spark, ask a friend or co-worker to write a message for the same situation and then discuss the pro’s and con’s of each message.

2) Here is what you want to say: “Why cannot you get along? You act like spoiled kindergartners, thinking the whole world revolves around your petty concerns.”

Here is what you want to happen: Two quarreling employees will learn to get along so more time can be spent on work and less on feuding.

Here is what you don’t want to happen: You don’t want to make matters worse. You don’t want to lose the friendship of either or both. You don’t want to be viewed as a meddler. You don’t want the situation to divide the work unit further by having others take sides.

What would you do in this second situation? Record your thoughts and again, consider working with a partner to hone both of your verbal skills.

3) Here is what you want to say: “Only a numbskull would refuse to attend training programs. Don’t you realize that what you earn depends on what you learn?”

Here is what you want to happen: Employees will attend training with a positive attitude and will use what they have learned when they return to work.

Here is what you don’t want to happen: You don’t want to appear holier-than-thou or smarter-than-thou. You don’t want employees to feel that you are forcing them to attend the class.

Our language has a million words. You can find the ones you need to make the communication convincing and not off-putting.

Leaders Who Are Inarticulate

James Hayes, former head of the American Management Association, once remarked that “leaders who are inarticulate make us all uneasy.” Whether or not you have an official leadership position, you will do well to develop your articulation skills–if only to make others feel easy around you.

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