Recent events have illuminated a poignant and time-honored leadership lesson - words matter. The right words can inspire, encourage and drive positive change. Diametrically, the wrong words can discourage, tear down and bring devastation.
As Mark Twain reminded us with one of his famous Twainisms, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the same as the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”
Early in my career I had a senior VP and mentor, Larry Dille, who repeatedly drilled into our training and development team the importance of using our words wisely. Since we interacted with almost 1000 sales team members and leaders on a consistent basis, he wanted to ensure we were always upholding our personal, team and organizational brand. The two words he used to make sure we didn’t forget were, “Words matter.”
Larry’s simple axiom has been stuck in my mind and heart for 35 years. I think of his advice often as I’m entrusted with guiding leaders and in interacting with family, friends and acquaintances. While far from being flawless in execution, its staying power has rescued me many times when the right words couldn’t come, or the emotions tied to the words would carry my words to a place of regret.
How can we be acutely in touch with walking out this lesson when tensions are strong and the stakes feel higher than ever? How can we make sure we use our words with such care they emphatically build others up and are used for a greater good and purpose?
Plan your words and message before speaking them. As I often write and speak, it takes planning and strategy time to be a proactive leader. This includes thinking through how to uniquely message according to the situation and person. If the only plan is to wing it, you may not be as effective as hoped, or even worse regret what was said. Plan. Prepare. Practice.
Take a time out. Have a quiver of statement arrows that come to you quickly and allow you to step away from the situation before delivering your thoughts. Responses such as: “This is such an important issue I want to give it the thought it deserves. Let’s come back to it.” is a great start. Or, “Let’s both take some time to think through this since there’s so much to consider.” And even vulnerably admitting, “I haven’t been at this exact place before. I need more time before answering.”
If you don’t have the luxury of pushing the pause button to defer your response, at least take a “pause for the cause.” Take time to just sit in the situation in that moment. Use silence as your ally to regain composure. Have an internal tape that you tell yourself that allows you to think before speaking. Take a deep breath, or two. Use the traditional press conference rule. Tie everything you say back to the one consistent theme or message you want to drive home.
Let the written copy cool. Don’t send potentially divisive or declarative messages until they’ve sat in the draft box at least 4-6 hours, and preferably 24. Come back at it fresh. Read it out loud. It’s amazing what we can see when we allow time and space to create clarity.
Think beyond the moment. While instant gratification may be luring you into speaking your top-of-mind thoughts, how will the same words or message feel tomorrow? What are the implications of your words both short and long term? Ask yourself, “Is the payoff of me speaking out in this situation greater than any price that might be paid for how it might be interpreted?” and, “What could possibly go wrong with this message?”
Words have consequences. They are one of the greatest tools in our arsenal. As leaders we’re responsible for our words. Instead of taking a “fire, ready, aim” approach with words, we need to first be ready, then aim, and lastly fire.
As Abraham Hershel, the great Jewish theologian reminded us, “Speech has power. Words do not fade. What starts out as a sound, ends in a deed.” Words matter.