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Clear Water Lake

Choose Your Words Carefully


A young manager once asked me to help him understand the disappointing reaction of one of his staff members to what he thought was a very generous offer on his part. The staff member had just had a baby, and the manager had been very flexible in offering her the option of working at home on her own schedule. He didn’t understand why she was almost offended by what he said.


Naturally, I asked what he had said that prompted her disappointing response. He said:


I don’t care when you do the work.

I don’t care where you do the work.

I don’t care how you get the work done.

I just care that it gets done.


Then I asked him what the first three words of his first three sentences were. “I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care,” he replied, looking like he finally understood.


I explained that the staff member hadn’t heard flexibility or support in his message, only a focus on work and a lack of caring about her or her new baby. Now, maybe he really didn’t care about her or the baby, but I didn’t get that impression. I thought he simply could have chosen more effective words so the real message came through.


He wanted to say, “I want to be as flexible as I can to support you, so it is entirely up to you as to where or on what schedule you work, as long as the deadlines are met and your usual high quality is maintained.” 


Maybe could even have said, “I know what a great job you do all the time, and I know you will continue to do a great job no matter where you do it or on what schedule. So how the work gets done is entirely up to you. Just let me know what you’re planning so we can coordinate the outcomes and meet client needs.”


Every word you use has an impact on the listener, and words that are not carefully chosen can have the opposite impact of what you intended. That means that every exchange you have with someone is a chance to reinforce a relationship, or clarify a position, or boost someone’s morale – or do 

just the opposite. 


When I asked the graduate students in a mediation class about the most important thing they had learned, a highly placed human resources professional said she realized that what she said had a greater impact than she had understood, and that she could make a difference just by choosing her words more carefully.



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