It’s not what you say… it’s how you say it

From the words you choose to the tone of your voice and even your facial expressions and body language while you’re speaking — they all factor in to how a colleague responds to what you’re saying.

Wouldn’t it be great if our places of work ran flawlessly, with each person executing his or her job to perfection and your entire team working in harmony all the time?

It’s a delightful thought. But, sadly, we’ll never achieve perpetual workplace bliss this side of heaven.

If you are a manager, you can be certain that events will occur that will require you to address the actions or performance of one or more of your co-workers. It’s as sure as me, pig that I am, buying 10 boxes of Girl Scout cookies every year (I love Thin Mints the best).

Your people are not perfect. Then again, neither are you.

Keep the latter truth in mind when dealing with your colleagues’ imperfections. It will help temper your response when the need arises to hold your people accountable for what they say or do.

Accountability goes hand in hand with personal development, and good leaders won’t shy away from addressing poor behavior or performance because of the opportunity it presents for their colleagues to learn and grow.

Believe it or not, most (though admittedly, not all) people can accept correction and guidance, in large part because they want to do better and please the boss. But how words of correction and guidance are expressed often determines how well they are received and whether the process of addressing an incorrect behavior or action leads to redemption or resentment.

When my wife Janet and I were raising our family, the job of disciplining our children often fell to me. However, Janet played a key role in that process. Before I’d address an issue with any of our kids, my wife would say to me, “Now remember, it’s not what you say — it’s how you say it.”

Those 10 words are worth repeating.

It’s not what you say — it’s how you say it.

From the words you choose to the tone of your voice and even your facial expressions and body language while you’re speaking — they all factor in to how a colleague responds to what you’re saying.

Tough conversations are inevitable. However, tough does not need to equal contentious if the conversations — and they should be conversations, not written indictments or tirades — are handled in the proper manner.

It’s OK for your words to be direct and your tone to be firm. It’s another for those words to be harsh and expressed in an angry or “how could you be so stupid” manner.

The Book of Proverbs says words properly spoken are like apples of gold in a basket of silver, and that gentle words can turn away wrath.

I’m not suggesting that what you say when correcting and guiding a colleague is as soft as baby food or puts a happy face on a problem.

However, choosing words that are direct yet dispassionate in nature increases the odds of preventing a sensitive conversation from becoming a contentious situation where your colleague focuses on defending himself or herself — or shuts you out entirely — rather than hears and receives what you have to say.

Remember what your goal is in addressing whatever action or performance issue requires attention.

It isn’t to berate your colleague or tear down their self-esteem for a past mistake, error in judgment or performance deficiency.

Rather, it is to guide them so that they don’t repeat the mistake, equip them to make better judgments in the future, and coach them to build their set of skills in order to improve their performance going forward.

Never forget that your people are the key to your organization’s success. Also never forget that you work with them day after day after day. That means you’ll be coming back to them over and over and over again asking them to give you their best efforts on whatever job or task for which they’re responsible.

You want a good, trusting relationship with your people, not an uneasy or resentful one.

Don’t let your response to the bumps and chuckholes in your workplace road ruin that relationship over the long haul.

Do you have thoughts about this column or a subject you’d like Mark to tackle in a future post? Leave a comment or e-mail him at

One thought on “It’s not what you say… it’s how you say it

  1. Mark, very good. I have often told managers that when they need to have a “Crucial Conversation:, (this is also the name of an excellent book with that title) that they should take a piece of paper, draw a line down the middle. The title of the left hand column is “Truth”. What is the message that needs to be delivered, what truths do I need to deliver clearly. The right hand column is titled “Respect”. In this column is the how. How do I deliver the message making sure that I am doing so with respect. “Its not what you say it is how you say it”. If all of my conversations balance truth and respect then the odds of it being productive and successful is greatly enhanced. Mark


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