Finding the Right Words

Finding the Right Words

I have always loved language. From a young age, I related to the world—and to myself—primarily through words. Whether that meant cuddling up for hours at a time with one of the many Little House on the Prairie Books or, as I grew older, sneaking out of bed to write in my journal as the stresses of middle school weighed down. As I grew, so did my fascination with language and words. In high school, I wrote poetry, edited the school newspaper, and took year after year of Spanish class. In college, I majored in English and the thought of doing anything other than writing, reading, and editing seemed absurd.

Though (thankfully) my professional horizons have expanded somewhat beyond the written word, I am blessed to have a work life that allows me opportunities to interface with language on a daily basis. I have, however, been surprised to learn that the words I need to pay attention to are not only those I read or write, but also the ones I say to myself and others, even in casual conversation.

In his book Leaders Open Doors, Bill Treasurer, founder and Chief Encouragement Officer at Giant Leap Consulting, discusses the importance of leaders being aware of their choice of language when speaking with team members and other colleagues. An obvious and easy-to-change example is a title. Bill cites a situation where a company wanted a certain group of managers to do less internal managing and exhibit more leadership in business development and other external processes. By simply changing part of their title from “manager” to “leader,” these employees felt empowered to embrace their new roles and confident in their abilities.

Being a part of a company that emphasizes servant leadership has given me many opportunities to reflect on how leaders can be most effective in their use of language. Something I have noticed that makes a big difference is the way leaders refer to themselves. Rather than being the “boss,” a title that often feels top-down, I have noticed many individuals in high positions referring to themselves from a perspective of “how can I help my team?” Some examples I have liked include Bill Treasurer as “Chief Encouragement Officer” and Becky Robinson as “Chief Influence Officer of Lead Change Group.”

Besides changing titles, there seem to be countless ways that we can utilize language (most often simple switches) to shift (even dramatically) the outcome of our conversations, both personally and professionally. One thing I have been trying to be more conscious of is making my communication more personal.

When engaging with another person, I try to keep these questions in mind:

  • Am I using this person’s name when I speak to them (i.e., acknowledging them as a unique individual)?
  • Do I use language in a way that will build this person up? Or am I emphasizing the negative?

In Hebrew, the word for gratitude is Hakarat Ha’Tov, which literally means “recognizing the good.” When we use our language to recognize the good in others, we help them feel appreciated and respected, which in turn helps us as leaders feel helpful and successful.

Tell me something! What small shifts in language have you seen make a difference?


Image credit: bman ojel


Filed As:  communication, leadership

About Margy Kerr-Jerrett

Margy Kerr-Jarrett enjoys reading, writing, and spending time in nature with her husband and daughter. Born and raised in Indianapolis, IN, Margy has been living in Jerusalem, Israel for the past three years.

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What People Are Saying

  • I’ve always loved words too. When I was 10 I decided I wanted to be an author. I always liked the assignments that involved writing but dreaded the white, blank page until I got started. Because I over think everything – literally everything – my success as a writer is minimal, but when I write I am content.

    A while back, Becky asked if we start our email correspondence with something friendly and personal or just get to the point? I have tried since then to be friendly first, then get to the point. For an over-thinker that is tough to do.

    Your post made me cheer “that’s me. that’s me”. Nice job, Margy!

    • Thanks Jane! I totally understand what you mean by “my success as a writer is minimal.” I LOVE poetry but have such a time actually working on any because I am so hyper judgmental of myself. I wish you lots of success at tackling that blank page!

  • As a fellow word lover, I am quite fond of this post, as you would imagine! (And thanks for the Hebrew lesson.) One example I ALWAYS go back to in my mind is something I included in a management paper a long time ago. Our ED was a very volatile (yet wonderful and competent individual). She had put a note on the thermostat that said DON’T TOUCH THIS THERMOSTAT!!!! I thought she was being a control freak, trying to save money on utilities. Years later one thing led to another and I realized she was trying to keep us comfortable and find some middle ground in a workplace full of people with varying temperature tolerances. So I guess that isn’t about the words so much as my interpretation but it still goes to your point (I hope!).

    • Totally, Paula! Its funny how much we can judge a person/situation based on just a few words.

  • Excellent post! Sure enough, small word changes can lead to huge changes in impact and meaning.

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