The Snitch

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It is not what leaders say, it is how they say it

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It's not what you say, but how you say it

I still think many people in leadership positions are not even aware of the power they hold or the influence they have on others through the language they use. Sometimes, just a word or gesture from someone in a senior position can have a big impact on the people they manage.

I remember several occasions when I have been taken aback by how something I said was interpreted. There have also been times when someone who has worked with me in the past would refer to something I said and how that impacted him/her.

We are proud of ourselves when someone gives us good feedback but what about the times when we have impacted others in a negative way? It’s taken me a while to learn this and to really embrace the idea that as leaders we have a serious responsibility with regard to what we say and how we say it. And of late I have been thinking about how we as leaders could lift our game consciously to positively influence the behaviors of the people we manage merely through the language we use.

There are many studies that focus around language, influence and communication. My favorite ones stem from Neuro–Linguistic Programming (NLP) where non-verbal language is hailed as being far more impactful than words. Taking a few hints from the NLP model here are some tips of how leaders could easily impact the people in their periphery of work life.

Future pace and possibilities

This is useful when we have to get our team to buy into a vision or target. In order to fully engage the team, the leader can future pace…means taking the team on a journey into the future. A sentence like “ imagine what you will be feeling when you have achieved your target” is a future pace statement, it assumes that the person spoken to will achieve their target and it also helps to place the listener in a useful space giving this person a positive frame of reference. More than this it opens up the person’s neurology to allow for the possibility of this happening in the future.

Embedded commands

We do this unconsciously and are also often the recipient of embedded commands. People embed commands in us without our awareness. For example, when someone says, “you will never succeed at the rate you are going” is a negative embedded command. A positive and more resourceful embedded command can sound like this “You have all the resources you need to achieve this goal within you, go ahead and do it now” (embedded command in bold)


This is similar to an assumption you are making, for example, when you say “When you like would to sign the contract, today or tomorrow” it is a presupposition. You are in effect assuming that this person will sign the contract!

Presuppositions can also be set up to describe values that the team can embrace, an NLP presupposition is “your map is not the territory” meaning what you perceive as your map of the world is not necessarily the complete picture of reality outside. Another useful one that I like is “embracing the opportunity to practice generosity of spirit makes us better people”.


Milton Erickson the father of hypnotic language made huge behavioral shifts with his patients by using metaphors. Metaphors are stories we tell. We all love stories and when a story gets told, it bypasses our conscious mind straight into our unconscious.

Studies with test groups have shown that shifts in behavior happened more readily with groups that were engaged in stories rather than groups that were given instructions. Many great leaders are also great storytellers. The person listening to the story becomes involved in the story. Metaphor can go like this “I remember working with a young man, around your age, who was very ambitious and wanted to achieve results at any cost….”

Mind reads

We all do some mind reads in some shape or form, for e.g. “I know from the way she looked at me that she did not like me” How do we know that? How specifically did she look at you?  Taken from a leadership influence point of view, the conversation might be like this “I know that you have a strong desire to out perform the targets we have set” or “ I know that you know that you have the strength to shine through this challenging time”

Tag questions

It is a question that is placed at the end of a statement to soften that statement or perhaps influence the listener to agree to what is being suggested.  A statement like “you do want to complete this project successfully, don’t you?” or “it’s always nice to have your team members appreciate your generosity of spirit, isn’t it? “

If you listen carefully to great orators and smart leaders, you will notice their language and how they engage the people they speak to, how they connect their audience to the picture they are drawing with their words. Think about why it is that you buy from someone or are willing to listen to one person versus another…did they make you feel comfortable, did you feel like you really enjoyed what they said?  Why do some leaders inspire you …Did they touch a chord in your heart?

Pay attention! The next time someone points out a great leader or negotiator to you, stop to listen to their choice words, their tonality, their intonation and they way they pause between their words because all these are clues into their language patterns.

This column is written by Lalita Nithiyanandan, executive advisor, Global Center of Excellence (CoE) for the Executive Search and Leadership Consulting practices within Kelly Outsourcing and Consulting Group.

Written by Human Resources

April 30, 2010 at 12:10 pm

Posted in Leadership

One Response

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