When to Use Words

I love the study of body language and how to use it effectively. The other day, I had a whole “conversation” with someone in another car without a single spoken word. Yet you can get yourself into trouble by leaving things unsaid. Especially if you are in a leadership position, you must be unambiguous. It requires courage to be straightforward, which is why we tend to dance around difficult conversations, give suggestions and hints, and make assumptions.

Vague communication and assumptions set the stage for miscommunication. Then leaders often react nonverbally, instead of directly. Good communication requires clear words and congruent nonverbals.

Here are three topics that require explicit and direct verbal communication:


1. Expectations

When irritation creeps into your voice, it is a sign that expectations are not being met. Nonverbally, you are communicating, “You should know better.” However, if an employee is not meeting your expectations, getting irritated won’t fix the problem. The other person will likely get defensive or hostile and communication deteriorates from there. Instead, take a step back and openly address the underlying issue.

Usually, unmet expectations come down to one of three things:

  • Lack of clarity. One of our greatest expectations is that others magically KNOW what we expect without having to be told. Don’t assume others are on the same page. Spell it out. Every person on the planet has a unique perspective from which they operate. If you haven’t clearly told others what you expect, perhaps because you think it should be obvious, you are setting yourself up for frustration and disappointment. Be specific.
  • Lack of ability or resources. Maybe you’re expecting too much. If your employee doesn’t have the skills, the time, or another necessary resource to follow through, they are doomed to failure. Either adjust your expectation to align with reality or provide the resources—get them some training, free up their schedule, find money in the budget, or whatever you can do.
  • Lack of consequences. Getting irritated is a consequence of unmet expectations, but it doesn’t have much impact. If you want to motivate others, provide them with a consequence—either positive or negative. What’s in it for them?

When you start to hear irritation in your voice, use it as a sign that something is wrong. Diagnose the problem, then be direct and clear about expectations and consequences. 

2. Contributions

As much as you would like it to, your work doesn’t always speak for itself. You need to clearly articulate what you have contributed or few people will notice.

This isn’t bragging. Don’t go around tooting your own horn for every little thing you do. Do be prepared to give a clear accounting of how you’ve helped your department or organization. Simply state what you’ve accomplished when it’s appropriate. Especially if you’re hoping for a raise or promotion, don’t count on your boss to know or remember all that you’ve done. Prepare and present a list!

Not only must you verbalize your own contributions, but also verbally acknowledge others’, too. If you notice and appreciate the work others have done, SAY SO. We are quick to complain and slow to express thanks. Just two words, sincerely spoken—“Great job,” or “Nicely done,” or “Thank you”—can provide the encouragement and feedback needed to keep employees moving forward.

3. Limitations 

I wonder what the world would be like if everyone said what they meant and no one was ever passive aggressive. If your boss or colleague asks you to do something, don’t say “Yes” with a sacrificial sigh of martyrdom or with snippy annoyance. Make sure your verbals match your nonverbals: “Yes,” is a positive, affirmative, sure word. If you can’t say “Yes” in a positive, affirmative, sure way, don’t say it.

When that is the case, give a clear “No.” Not a “Maybe” or “I’ll try.” State your limitations, while offering alternatives. This opens the door for finding solutions. For example:

  • No, I can’t meet this week; my schedule is packed. I could reschedule my Thursday meeting, if you’re okay with delaying that project. I also have room in my schedule next week.
  • No, my team is focused on XYZ project, so we can’t work on that now. We can get to your project next. Or if you think it’s more important to the business, we can talk to my boss about reprioritizing.
  • No, I won’t be working late tonight because it’s my daughter’s birthday. Perhaps someone else is available tonight. If not, I’ll look at it first thing in the morning.

Often, instead of being plain with our “Yes” and our “No,” we give the answer we think the other person wants, and then we use nonverbals to let them know how we really feel with sighs or disgruntled facial expressions or begrudging silence. This is a misuse of nonverbal communication! Say what you mean, politely.

Clear communication, free of annoyance and irritation, builds trust and conveys confidence. If you want to be perceived as a leader, be straightforward.

Change your communication, change your life.

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