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The Language of the Way Forward

The Language of the Way Forward

In the words of Robert Waldo Emerson “Don't be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.” By adopting an experimental approach in the workplace, we encourage a culture where we are more willing to take risks, acknowledge failures, learn from mistakes and become better. Growth mindsets work best when you have a work culture that encourages flexible, changeable work models that allows for experimentation. If something doesn’t work, that’s simply data we can learn from and that leads to adopting a different approach to discover what does work.

The language we use in the workplace as leaders is vital in setting the tone for a culture whereby collaboration is key, ideas are welcomed.

Think of a situation in which a team is sitting together in a meeting trying to move through tension and agree on how to move forward. In the right environment, someone may feel empowered or brave enough to say something they might otherwise be embarrassed to say because it’s too ‘out there’, too risky or has never been done before. Given the right environment with a leader setting the right tone to facilitate a meeting where all ideas are welcomed, someone could say something that sparks a huge breakthrough in the way forward.

During times of tension, the language you use is crucial and can make-or-break how we move forward.

What NOT to say

When you are trying to lead a team through tension, it’s important to avoid using words and phrases that are limiting and are counterproductive to an open, flexible and experimental approach. Words like ‘solution’ and ‘plan’ should be avoided as they tend to close-off an open approach and solidify how you are going to do things to reach your desired outcome.

Likewise beginning sentences with “I think...”, “I reckon…” can be limiting. This language locks you into a set way of doing something, or a set way of thinking, or your position on a matter, that others see as set in stone. They make you less likely to shift your position (therefore making you less open to other options) and more likely to defend your position when others challenge it.

Additionally, if you say, “I think we should ...” or “my viewpoint is ...” you will likely have the effect of unduly influencing the teams’ opinions on how to proceed and actually extinguish creative thought on the best way forward. They could also shift their opinions to agree with yours, discouraging their own thoughts and ideas from even formulating. You won’t be getting the best out of your team and you won’t enjoy the benefits of collaborative thinking.

The power of using the right language – what words to use

Having the right frame of mind is vital to set the tone of the language you use. It’s important to remind yourself that when you have agreed on a desired outcome, you should avoid defining a singular plan or solution to get there. Rather, break it down into bite-size chunks with regular intervals to review, reflect and tweak the way forward and define your next steps.

Use language that invites open conversation, so you can collectively agree on the next steps and how to begin the journey to collectively reach the desired outcome.

Begin sentences with “I’m noticing…”, “I’m wondering…”, “I suspect…”; which are designed to spark ideas and ignite collaborative discussion. By making observations, rather than stating your opinion, you are positioning your viewpoint as more neutral and open to other ideas from your team.

Focus on being more of a facilitator and less of a dictator to ensure you get the best thoughts out on the table. By starting with this open language, you are also less likely to defend your position and be more willing to shift your perspective, which is a great approach to leading a team forward and coming up with steps everyone can agree on.

Don’t underestimate unspoken body language

Body language also plays a huge role in setting the tone for conversations to define the way forward.

Your posture, hand gestures, facial expressions, eye contact etc should not be overlooked.

When you are inviting conversation and inspiring all ideas and options to find a way forward you need to focus on having the right eye contact, nodding and smiling to encourage ideas, and of course making subtle gestures to signal someone else’s turn to talk. Empathy and connection are enhanced through smiling, eye contact and open palm gestures. Your authority, presence and confidence are signalled through a sitting upright, shoulders back etc. You can shift the energy simply but moving inwards, relaxing your posture and gesturing with open palms to signify an open discussion.

As facilitative leaders, the power behind the language we use should not be underestimated. The next time you have to lead through tension, try this approach and see if you can spark any breakthroughs amongst your team.

Could your leadership team benefit from one of my tailored workshops? Please get in touch today. I’d love to help!


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