Two Words A Leader Should Never Use
One of the essential skills any leader needs to master is that of effective communication. Effective communication means that the leader knows how to listen effectively and knows the difference between hearing and listening (more on that in another newsletter). She also knows what words to use, at what times, to inspire her listeners to action. He knows how to set priorities and manages his time well.
The effective leader knows and understands the power of words and non-words. She knows that most of her communication comes through her body language and her tone of voice, and that the words can sometimes carry very little weight in her interactions.
Such a leader knows, however, that some words can be so potent that they overpower the non-verbal information: insulting words, slang, and swearing... although some research indicates that swearing could possibly help to inspire people to act.
What may not be as apparent, though, is the effect that words have on ourselves, and how they affect our leadership abilities. And I don't mean the typical negative self-talk (e.g. "I'm an idiot," "I always make dumb mistakes," "Nobody takes me seriously," yada, yada, yada. Instead, I am talking about nondescript words that seem completely innocuous. Specifically, I am thinking about two words which, when uttered, can completely change the relationship dynamics in an instant.
These two words are: I know.
This is counterintuitive for many people. We are in a knowledge-based era where the person who knows and understands the most, wields the most power. I do not dispute this fact, however, while that may work well in business it becomes a major hindrance when dealing with individuals. There are three reasons for this:
- You stop listening: once you (claim to) know something, the communication filters become even greater than they naturally are. Listening is a process where everything you hear goes through a filter and affects your perception and understanding. When you add the "I know" filter to the mix, it acts much like clogged arteries in your body: it becomes harder and harder to get anything through. You stop truly listening to what the other person says because, since "you know" already, you assume that the other person can tell you nothing of value. You become distracted and thus, may miss important information.
- You close your mind: "I know" conveys a sense of completion. There is a finality associated with those words which makes it much more difficult to accept an opinion or fact that is counter to your own. Once you say "I know" you will defend your position more fiercely. Ego comes into play and admitting after the fact that you did not know, can feel humiliating for many.
- You are wrong: that's right, you don't know! Most of the time, when we say "I know" while talking about someone else's point of view, thoughts, and feelings, we are mistaken. In my training sessions, I often do an exercise which tests this hypothesis. I ask the attendees to partner with someone else and to state ten things about the other person that they think they know. Very, very rarely do I have anyone get all ten right, even if they know the other person very well.
When leaders say "I know" it often means "I assume" instead and this can have catastrophic effects when the stakes are high. How do you counter? Here are three ways:
- Don't assume you know. Human feelings, emotions, and perceptions are fluid. From one moment to the next, you can never be really sure what is going on. By assuming that you do not know, you are allowing yourself to better listen, understand, and eventually, know.
- Validate your understanding regularly. This point was reinforced for me during a recent conversation with a health professional. She was explaining to me how an emergency situation in a medical clinic had almost turned to tragedy. One of her patients had an allergic reaction to medication and had difficulty breathing. So she ran out in the hall, called for help, asked a receptionist to call an ambulance, and so on. She said that she ended up doing everything herself and that one doctor, who was in the area, did not come to her aid. The way she explained the situation, I had a distinct image in my mind of a doctor, sipping coffee behind a counter, chatting away with some colleagues while a few meters away, one person was trying to revive a dying man, all by herself. After asking a few questions, it turns out that my understanding was completely wrong. But had I assumed that I knew, I would have had an extremely poor perception of that particular doctor and the medical clinic where he practiced. Validating that your perception is correct is the best way to prevent such misunderstandings.
- Listen thoroughly. When someone is explaining something to you, let the person explain with as few interruptions as possible. Above all, don't try to complete their thoughts. If there is a hesitation on the other person's part, let her find the proper words to explain. If it occurs too often, you can politely ask the person to prepare what she wants to say and to come see you only after she is ready to explain.
In the words of comedian Loretta LaRoche: "You never know!" (said with a nasal New York accent). Unless the other person tells you in no uncertain terms, you don't really know. You can only assume. And you know what they say about assuming1!
© 2009 Laurent Duperval, All rights reserved