How To Talk Your Way To A Stronger Team

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Whether you are an associate manager or a senior executive, what you say, how you say it, when you say it, to whom you say it, and whether you say it in the proper context are critical components for tapping into your full strategic leadership potential.
-Rebecca Shambaugh, Founder of Women In Leadership & Learning (WILL)


As Shambaugh makes so clear in her quote, It’s your words that can inspire someone to stretch themselves further than they ever believed possible or cause someone else to start searching for their next job. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the areas of leadership development that is neglected as more attention is paid to strategic initiatives, organizational charts, or improving technical expertise.

If you’re ready to “talk the talk” of a leader, here are eight areas to work on as you seek to build a higher level of trust and engagement with everyone on your team:

Listen At Level 3

“Wait a minute,” you say. “I thought you were going to tell me what to say as a leader.” We’ll get to that later. Before you utter a word, it’s critical that you are prepared to properly process the response to your comments as a leader. With all you have on your plate, you need to be able to quiet the noise in your head so you can focus on what the words, silence, and the body language of the person in front of you (or on the phone) is telling you.

To determine how well you typically listen, review these three levels of listening (more fully defined in this Co-Active Coaching article), and think about the last phone or face-to-face conversation you had. Which level were you working from most often?

Level 1:
Your awareness was on yourself more than the other person. You thought about questions you would ask next while the person was talking. You were aware of other noises around you and your attention might be briefly drawn to them from time to time.

Level 2:
You had a sharp focus on the other person. If necessary, you could have repeated almost every word they said. You were less aware of any external noises or distractions.

Level 3:
You noticed not only the words, but the energy with which they were said, the pauses between words or sentences, and changes in body language (if face-to-face). If asked at any moment, you could have accurately described the mood of the conversation and the person with whom you were speaking.

As you know, becoming a deeper listener doesn’t just happen. It takes practice. Some techniques you can use to improve your level of listening include:

  • Removing as many visual distractions as possible
  • Slowing the conversation down and allowing space for reflection on what has just been said before making a comment or asking a question
  • Repeating back what you just heard and asking the other person if it’s a correct articulation of what they meant to say
  • Being attentive to when the person starts talking louder or softer, faster or slower, more positive or negative

Reduce Your Use Of “Trigger” Words Or Phrases

Have you ever, in response to the phrase, ‘Calm down,’ actually calmed down?

Simply defined, they are words or phrases that can create a barrier to clearly communicating with someone else. A classic example is the phrase, “Just calm down.” Have you ever, in response to that phrase, actually calmed down? It probably made the situation worse, right? Here are a list of other phrases that seem to drive a wedge between us and the person to whom we are speaking:

  • “You always….”
  • “We need to…”
  • “Why did you…?”
  • “At the end of the day…”
  • “It is what it is…”

To see an even longer list, check out this infographic.

If you find that phrases like these frequently make it into your lexicon, come up with alternative phrases that aren’t as harsh or invite division. Here are some examples:

  • Instead of saying, “You always…” say “I’ve noticed…”
  • Instead of “We need to…” say “How might we…?”
  • Instead of “Why did you…” say “What factors caused you to make that choice?”

And about all those “buts”
Recall the last time in conversation that you remembered what someone said BEFORE they used the word “but.” It’s a contradictory conjunction that suggests anything said before it is not completely valid. If a leader says, “I appreciate all the work you did this month, but you’re going need to work even harder next month,” it sends the wrong message. A better way to say it might be, “I appreciate all the hard work you did this month, because it gives us great momentum going into an even busier month.”

Other alternatives to using “but” include “that said,” “and,” or “however.”

Ask Better (And More) Questions

Dale Carnegie is quoted as saying, "Effective leaders ask questions instead of giving orders." Your goal as a leader is to create team members who can think, analyze, and choose the best course of action on their own, with minimal input from you. Michael J. Marquardt, author of Leading with Questions, writes that questions should do five key things when asked:

  • Empower
  • Create inclusiveness
  • Challenge assumptions
  • Cause the person to stretch
  • Encourage breakthrough thinking

Like listening and using the right words in conversation, asking better questions takes practice. Before your next conversation with a team member or your next team meeting, come up with two-three questions that meet the criteria above. And listen at level 3 for the responses!

Talk With The Right Speed And Tone

How you communicate your words is just as important as what you say. Do you tend to talk too fast and fail to pause for others to join the conversation? Or perhaps you find yourself fumbling for the right words to say, and fill the gaps with “um” or other words. Maybe you talk in monotones that don’t motivate others to action. Think back to the last great conversation you had with a friend. The pace varied, there was space between sentences, and even the tone changed depending on what you were discussing with them. How could you bring more of those elements into your discussions with your team?

Conversation As A Leader.jpg

If you’re looking for some help in this area, consider the Orai App. It helps with pace, tone, and filler words and gives suggestions for improvement.

Talk With Their Motivation In Mind

A fantastic workplace study conducted by Tiny Pulse asked the following question to over 200,000 employees in over 500 organizations: What motivates you to excel and go the extra mile in your organization? How well do you know what motivates your team members? If you don’t know and aren’t creating conversations (or questions) that tap into that motivation, how can you expect them to give their best effort in accomplishing the team’s goals?

Talk Positively About The Future

Let’s imagine you work as a sailor on a ship. You work hard to get the ship ready and supplies loaded, only to learn that the ship isn’t going to leave the harbor. Disappointed? Unless you get motion sickness, the answer is “Yes.” You invested lots of time and energy to make the voyage. In the same way, people want to know that their work is helping “take” the team (including them) to a better destination in the future. Brad Lomenick, author of The Catalyst Leader, says it best: “When you give people a reason to believe that tomorrow can be better than yesterday, they will be inspired to make the most of today.”

Talk About Progress

While people want to have hope that a better future awaits them, they are also looking for indicators that the efforts they are making are moving the team closer to the desired destination. How have they improved since last year, last month, or even last week? Failure to provide this feedback leaves them feeling like the gap between where they are and where they should be is too wide… so they settle for maintaining the status quo.

Say “Thank You” More Often.

As I’ve written before, the power of saying “Thank you” to those on your team can not be overstated. Research also shows that expressing sincere gratitude for the work of those around you can actually improve productivity.  Amy Morin, in her article, How An Authentic “Thank You” Can Change Your Workplace Culture, writes, “Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania discovered that grateful leaders motivate their employees to be more productive. In one study involving fundraising calls, employees who were thanked by their managers made 50% more fundraising calls than their co-workers.” What could your team accomplish if your people were 50% more motivated?

The key is to make sure you express your gratitude in authentic, timely, and appropriate ways. Saying “Thanks for your hard work,” doesn’t cut it. Be specific about what they did that causes you to say it now. And if speaking gratitude doesn’t come easy to you, try writing short notes or sending emails with the encouragement.

People bring their minds AND hearts to work each day. You need to speak to both if you want to be successful as a leader.

Ultimately, leaders need to remember that when they are talking, they are speaking to individuals. Whether there are 2 or 2000 people in the room, it's that focus on what's important to each person, listening to really hear them, and giving them hope about a brighter future that will make the difference. When you make those things a priority in your head and heart, don't be surprised when your words move your team forward in a powerful way.


Jones Loflin is a global keynote speaker offering innovative strategies for individuals and organizations struggling with too much to do. He is the author of several books, including Always Growing and the award-winning Juggling Elephants. Jones is well-known for his solutions for individuals, groups and businesses on leadership development, work-life satisfaction, and change. To learn more about Jones, go to