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How You Say Things Matters

By Jacklyn | July 20, 2008

A former colleague used to feel irritated whenever her supervisor went up to her with an assignment, saying: “I want you to do this for me.”

I raised her hackles because she herself always approached others politely, with a “please”, “could you” or “would you”. Someone marching up to her with an “I want” order, made worse by the “for me” tack-on, did not sit well with her, even if she reported to that person.

Indeed, how we say something is often much more important than what we say. In my ex-colleague’s case, her supervisor’s favourite demand left her feeling as if she had to drop everything else to see to each new task, and wondering why she was being spoken to like an indentured servant.

Is your approach high-handed?

When we tell our co-workers “Do this” and “Do that”, the message we communicate is that we think they are so free, and their other jobs so unimportant, that we needn’t bother with the courtesy of asking if we may trouble them to do more, or to ask if they can cope with another task on their plates.

Ultimately, the job must be given, but the process of giving it can be made more pleasant by taking a polite approach, never assuming that she can do it, and being open to reshuffling duties a little to free up some space on her schedule for the new task.

Only for very routine assignments when staff regularly come in expecting to be given work for the day, can you afford to say more plainly:”Okay, A does this hob, B takes this one, and C will do this other thing.”

Are you downplaying others’ responsibilities?

Possibly worse than giving orders is downplaying the difficulty of a colleague’s job. “But it’s only one little change”, “Why can’t you just…” and “It’s not that hard to do, right?” are among the lines we thoughtlessly drop when asking someone to take on something new, or amend what they’ve already done.

As one designer memorably (and bitterly) quipped to co-workers who were asking for “just one little” alteration to a graphic: “Of course it’s easy to do it because you’re only using your mouth.”

Something that looks simple to you may involve a fair deal of trouble for the person executing it. Even if it is easy-peasy, your colleague could have completed that job and moved on to something else. Making “just one little change” can throw off his schedule and flow of thought.

Avoid words like “only”, “just”, and “All I’m asking…” Instead, acknowledge that they are busy, and apologise if you are interrupting another bit of work. It doesn’t change the fact that you are asking them to do more, but it does help that they know that you know it isn’t necessarily easy.

Watch your words

In sum, always ask nicely; never be presumptuous. Don’t order people about unless you’re a military commander, in which case you would be a fool to try to tack like: “Very sorry to trouble you, man, but would you mind terribly if you took a shot at the target now, before it shoots us first?”

Don’t downplay others’ jobs. It creates resentment as they will assume that you ask them to do things because you think they have a lot of spare time on their hands.
Article in courtesy of Adele Ong

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Topics: Leadership, NLP, Personal Development | No Comments »