Research Paper By Terre Short
(Executive Coach, UNITED STATES)
The words we choose reflect our values and our intent. How often do we reflect on the impact our words have on others? How do we reconcile the impact of our words and our intent, and confirm that they align with our values? All of this typically occurs in a nano-second between a thought and the expression of that thought; verbally, texted, or written. As coaches, we are trained to pay close attention to our word choices, especially in how we frame questions. This paper explores the word choices of clients, as well as coaches, that may represent praise, judgement, ownership, apathy, curiosity, blame, confidence and doubt. These values will be presented as polarities to further illustrate the potential impact of choosing the perfect word for one’s intent. Lastly, there will be an exploration of words that have the power to truncate a thought or expression, and those that encourage or extend an expression.
In order to assess how well one’s words align with their values; values need to be named and tested for relevance. In her book, Dare to Lead, Brene Brown provides a chapter on how to clarify and name your values. She offers this definition, “A value is a way of being or believing that we hold most important.” (Brown B., 2018) Psychology Today offers a six-step process online for determining your personal core values. This article provides some prompts and refection exercises to ensure the reader does not simply choose from an existing list. (Selig, 2018)If you have not recently assessed your personal values, doing so will set you up for choosing words that represent your values well.
Words of Praise vs Words of Judgement
There is so much to consider about words of praise. Oftentimes, we do not truly register words of praise, while we vigilantly listen for words that condemn or judge. This is borne out of a more natural inclination to look for what is wrong as opposed to what is right. Volumes have been written about the power of positive reinforcement; at work, with kids and loved ones, as well as the suggested ratio of 5:1 (positive to negative feedback). However, most people who live in “fixer” mode at work or home, remain on high alert for what they can amend, thereby inadvertently offering and listening for the negative over the positive.
As coaches, we hedge on true words of praise, as offering them can imply judgement. For example, if I am coaching someone on living their healthiest life and I offer praise for the 100 pounds they lost, they may perceive judgement. If I say, “That’s amazing, great job on losing so much weight!” – this implies I value weight loss, or potentially hold a bias for weighing less. Better to say, “Great job on meeting your health goal!” – implying only that I value meeting goals and offering praise for the client working toward their goal (which is a key component of our relationship.)
Many adjectives may feel like praise from the coach’s perspective but can represent judgement or at the very least only the coach’s values. This is heavily dependent on the context of the conversation. As stated above, an adjective attached to what the client is working on, or their stated goal, is a safe bet. Adjectives tied to other things mentioned can lead to judgement. Here is an example tied to speaking with children. When a toddler, puts his candy wrapper in the trash, you could say “good boy” and thereby only offer your judgement of him as a boy – good, in this instance. Or you could say, “great job putting your wrapper in the trash,” in which case you are praising the action and his intention, without any implied judgement.
Words to listen for from the client that may indicate their own judgement and/or negativity around an issue, are words such as “problem, struggle, hard.” Stating that something is a problem, or a struggle implies to the coach that the client has judged the circumstance and determined how it aligns with their values. In this case, in conflict with their values as the circumstance is a “problem.” This may not be the case at all and warrants an exploration of the client’s values and consideration of what this “problem” means to them.
Words of Curiosity vs Words of Indifference
As coaches, we are in a constant state of curiosity. We can use our powers of observation to spark our curiosity about a change in energy, tone, gesture, volume…etc. We can seek permission to explore a topic more deeply, based on what we are curious about. The best words for expressing this curiosity is to simply state, “I’m curious, or I’m wondering…” (and then tie directly to what the client said, or what you observed.) For example; “I am curious about how your energy changed when you mentioned your work team, what’s coming up for you?”
Clients use different words that might signify a curiosity that needs to be explored. A client may say things such as, “I think…, I’m not sure if…, I wonder if…, I am uncertain.” Each of these phrases is prompted to a coach for deeper exploration. Conversely, a client may offer words that are more apathetic such as, “I don’t think…, I doubt if…, I don’t really care if…, I’m not sure why…”. Though these phrases represent a level of indifference, they are also prompted for further prodding in a curious, safe manner. These statements speak to underlying beliefs and values that could be paramount to a client’s growth.
Coaches should be aware of words, or their own energy shift, that might signal indifference to the client. While presenting a neutral posture, a coach may be perceived as lacking excitement and/or interest over a topic. The best antidote to any potential expression of indifference is to remain in a place of curiosity and allow your questions and observations to support your interest.
Words of Accountability vs Words of Blame
The word that most accurately and succinctly speaks to accountability is “will.” “I will,” says that one is taking responsibility and owning an action. There are many supportive words of accountability to listen for such as, outcome, learning, success, expect, expectations, reflect, path, actions, goal, progress, and commit. These are all words that may provide insight into what a client values and the terms with which they measure themselves. Coaches are best served to weave these same words from the client into coaching conversations and tease out how they relate to the client’s accountability.
Other ways in which ownership is expressed is in how we say what we “have” to do and “get” to do. This word choice is important for the coach when speaking and listening. Speaking in terms of what one “gets” to do as opposed to what one “has” to do, implies ownership over obligation.
Here’s a simple example: a dad picks up one child from school and ends up late for the game of another child. He is likely to say to the second child (Sam), “I’m sorry Sam, I had to pick of Sally.” Who does this lay the blame on? How might this make Sally and Sam feel? What the dad believes his values is being there for his kids. What he is messaging is that it is hard to juggle their schedules and that doing something for one causes him to slight the other. It is unlikely this is his intent. If he wants to lead with his value of being there for his kids he might say, ” Sam, I got to pick up Sally today and I am sorry that my timing was such that we are a bit late for your game. I love your games and watching you play.”
Commonly, we speak in terms of what we “have” to do instead of what we “get” to do. “Having” to do something implies a burden or obligation. So often what we are referring to “having” to do is quite far from a burden. Additionally, this impacts those we converse with, especially if they feel a part of the perceived burden of what you “have” to do.
Coaches should listen for words that shirk ownership and place blame. Words such as should, must, ought all to deflect the power to someone or something else. When these words are being chosen, an exploration of the values that these representatives would be beneficial. If I say, “I should make an effort to work with my colleague,” I am suggesting a value that my words do not convince I truly own. Whereas, if I say, “I will make a greater effort to work with my colleague,” I own that decision and can tie it back to my value of collaboration.
Words of Confidence vs Words of Doubt
The word “will” fits in here too, as does “can” and “I am.” These words are assertive, affirmative expressions that exude confidence. Choosing these words most directly tie the topic to values. Example: “I will finish this paper on time.” – speaks directly to my value of timeliness. “I can check that action as complete by the end of the week” – asserts with confidence that I value achievement. Saying, “I doubt I can get that done” or “I am not sure that will work” or “I tried” or “I don’t think so…” all represent doubt. When a client uses these expressions, they are likely not aligned with their values. There is an opportunity to explore where these feelings of self-doubt are coming from, and to assess how they relate to values and underlying beliefs.
To quote Yoda, “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”Try” and “if” are other common words used to bridge the gap between doubt and confidence. Clients may refer to “if” they are able to do XYZ, as opposed to “when” they will accomplish XYZ. A great response from a coach would be to ask, “I heard you say ‘if’, what will prevent you from doing XYZ?” When a client routinely employs “try” in their conversation, there is an opportunity to understand if this comes from a place of doubt, fear, or lack of ownership.
Words of confidence and doubt are tricky for the coach. The ones stated above (I can, I will), if used by the coach could imply ownership or a form of assistance that is not theirs to own or give. The coach may value being of service, or assisting others, but in the pure coach/client relationship they are not expected to “help” with an outcome or assume any ownership of an issue. The coach creates an environment for self-discovery, which can be perceived by both parties as “helpful” but the coach is not helping the client become their best self – the client is doing that work.
The coach’s confidence comes through in their expert question choices. Leading with “what” or “how” and wrapping the rest of the question tightly to what needs to be explored is a great starting point. A coach expresses doubt if they use words/phrases such as, “I should, I better, I’m worried, I doubt…” Some strong words a coach can weave into their powerful questioning are clarified, confirm, explore, intent, invite, beyond, reflect, thoughts, intuition, progress. For example, “what else needs to be clarified before you take the next step?”
Words That Truncate vs Words That Extend
Some words cause a pause or an end to a discussion. They create a transition to another topic or simply the end of the existing one. The most powerful of these words is, “no.” A close second is “but.” From a coaching perspective, we avoid a conversation being truncated by a “no” response if we steer clear of yes/no questions or closed-ended questions. The use of “but” can halt a conversation, especially if what follows strays from the intent. In recent years, there has been a surge in adopting “yes, and” responses. This has been used to improve and creative brainstorming and is taught as a leadership communication technique. The premise is that instead of shutting down the conversation with the “but,” you open it up with “and” as the joiner.
Forbes Coaching Council had one of the many internet articles on this topic titled, Leading With A ‘Yes, And.‘ They assert, “’ Yes, and’ is a powerful leadership tool because it allows for affirmation and collaboration: two major traits in today’s leaders.” (Brown J. O., 2017) In some circumstances it may be appropriate for the coach to respond “yes, and…” and leave it at that, making “and?” a question that sparks further thought.
When a client is a frequent user of “but” there are likely ownership issues to be addressed. “But” serves as a deflection and is oftentimes a joiner to an excuse. A coach should listen well for this word and form a question around what follows the “but” joiner. For example, if a client says, “I would have completed that project, but the team had some issues.” The coach might respond with, “Yes, and how did this affect you?”
Other words a coach can employ to extend a thought or conversation are: “I see” (with a pause), “and…”, or “yet…” – leaving space after each for the client to reflect and respond. Additionally, responding to changes in tone, pace, the expression can serve the purpose of encouraging and therefore extending what is being discussed. For example, “I noticed a change in your expression as you got to the end of your story about not believing in Santa…what else is coming up for you?”
In summary, the words we use and the words we hear represent values and underlying beliefs. Much of what a coach does is explore these beliefs with the client. Being highly attuned to the words a client chooses sets the coach up for selecting impactful words, as well as knowing exactly where to probe for deeper understanding. Word choices reflect values, so step one may be to explore your values and assess for alignment with your messaging. What words do you wish to use more frequently to truly represent you? Step two would be considered the polarity of word choices as outlined in this paper and understand how they may relate to your conversations (with yourself or others). And lastly, listen carefully and choose wisely and you will be communicating well.
Brown, B. (2018). Dare to Lead. New York: Random House.
Selig, M. (2018). Six Ways to Discover Your Core Values. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us.
Brown, J. O. (2017). Leading With A “Yes, And”. Forbes.