How to Say Anything Honestly, But Gently
One mark of a seasoned leader is gentleness. A gentle leader demonstrates he has learned how to communicate exactly what needs to be said, even harsh truths, with kindness. These leaders practice one of the most important lessons of leadership, as expressed by President Lincoln:
The strongest force on earth is gentleness. - Abraham Lincoln
Executing Gentleness Effectively
As I have wrestled with the idea of gentleness in leadership, I’ve discovered the following truths:
- You can express the exact same message in tens of ways, from rude to gentle.
- The choice of your words and word combinations make a tremendous difference in how your message is received. (I will share the ones I frequently use below.)
- People want to do the right thing; treat them with that truth in mind.
- People want to be respected and valued. Speak to them in that manner.
- The harsher you are in communicating a message, the less likely it is that the person receiving it will truly comply.
The key component to executing gentleness effectively, where the message is kind but not muddled, is choosing the right words and key phrases. Even one word, used in the right place, can transform a harsh message into one that is palatable and well-received. I will give you examples below of words and word combinations that I have incorporated into my speech.
Before I do, remember that these words and key phrases have to be said in the context of a warm and respectful relationship, and at a time when both you and the other person are alone, or in a small intimate meeting—and most importantly, when you are both feeling good. (i.e. not emotional, frustrated, upset, or physically exhausted)
Many leaders think speaking a message harshly is more effective. Wrong! Very, very rarely is harshness required.
Key Phrases to Help You Say Anything with Gentleness
“I have a small concern about how you are relating to the staff. I would love to see you be a bit warmer with them.” Let’s examine the specific words:
- Small: People don’t want to think that they have big problems. And it is rare that we are dealing with big problems anyway. So I approach people from the perspective that we are dealing with a small issue. I will show you later how to say that this small issue has become a large one.
- Concern: A concern is usually something solvable. It is not a big problem or catastrophe. It is serious enough for most level-headed people to understand that it warrants attention, but not so critical that it elicits panic and defensive reactions.
- How you are relating to…: I could have said, “how you are yelling at,” or “not connecting with,” or “being rude to.” But this intentional word choice communicates it gently. “Relating to others” covers all of the above.
- I would love to see you…: That’s better than “I want to see you,” or “I need to see you.” The phrase, “I would love to see you…” communicates to the person he is in the presence of his coach, not his boss. Do you see how one word can make all the difference?
- A bit: Again, let’s try not make big issues out of most issues. Wouldn’t this sound gentle to you if you were at the receiving end? As leaders, if we drive hard, the person we are talking to will nearly always shut down.
“Charles, there is a small issue I would like to run by you. I would like to see you make it to work on time more often. Do you think you can?”
- Small: Another point on the idea of keeping issues small. If we are doing our job as leaders, we should address issues while they are still small.
- Run something by you: This is a non-threatening way to approach someone with an area of concern. This says that there is something we need to collaborate on to resolve. And isn’t that the way to think about issues with people? Collaborate, discuss, and solve things together to find win-win solutions.
- I would like to see you…: This clearly states what you would like to see, but in a kind way.
- Do you think you can…: By asking this, you assume that there is something preventing that person from getting there on time. You are asking kindly and not demanding. After all, something is preventing them from coming in on time, right?
Here are some other examples:
“Marci, would you be willing to work on this with me? I would like to see you move to the next step in this area. What do you think?”
“Would you allow me to share something with you?”
“Can I have your permission to be honest with you?”
“There is a little issue I want to make sure we are both on the same page with. Can I share that with you?”
“Julie, I would like us to work on something together.”
“Tom, there is something I want to make you are aware of.”
“Steve, there is an area I want to see if you can give some thought to.”
“Nancy, there is an area that if we are able to address together, I think we could move forward on.”
You may have other sentences and words you use, which is great. These are usually the opening to a gentle, but honest discussion for me. I hope they can help you shape your own conversations. I want to be clear that the vast majority of the time, the gentle approach allows me to say everything I need to say, and then some. And it makes what I say more acceptable to others.
Here is one final rule that I practice when it comes to confronting issues: If I have to be anything other than gentle with people on my team in order for them to get the point, I will ask them to leave my team. Are you with me? If you have to pull and tug, push and prod, to get things moving, then one of two things has to change: you or others. You need to grow, or they need to grow. You need to leave or they need to leave.
Decide to practice gentleness in your leadership. Not weakness. Not wishy-washy words. Not hesitancy. Always be direct. Always be bold, resolute, and clear. But gentle. To do that, start building your library of key words and phrases to communicate what needs to be said.
Actionable step: Challenge yourself to say exactly the same message you now say harshly, in a more gentle way. Say it clearly. Say it firmly. But be kind.
About me…I went to medical school in Galveston, Texas. The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston was built in the late 1900’s. It was the first medical school in Texas.
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