Early in my management career, I said to the sales manager, “Things are slowing down too much. What’s our plan to get back on track?” “We don’t need a plan,” she responded. “We’re buckling down and working harder. We know what to do.”
I should have said that plans are always worthwhile, and teams benefit both from the planning process and the alignment it creates. But I didn’t know how to say it. So, I suggested we needed to see better results soon, and the conversation, unresolved, moved on. My failure to articulate what ought to be done cost us a key opportunity to move the business forward.
When have words failed you? A customer insists he doesn’t know when his company will be ready to buy; do you know how to counter this dusty disclaimer? Or maybe you know an employee is coming in too late too often, but you’re not sure how to broach such a touchy subject.
Well, say goodbye to tied-up tongue. I recently discovered a new book entitled Perfect Phrases for Managing Your Small Business, and I can’t imagine a better investment at $10.95. Not only that, it’s Canadian. Written by Robert Bacal and Nancy Moore, the husband-and-wife team at Bacal & Associates in Casselman, Ont., it’s your one-stop guide to saying the right thing.
Say you’re in a taut negotiation. She has just delivered her final offer. How do you get more? Saying “That’s not good enough” could jeopardize the deal. Bacal and Moore offer multiple suggestions for pushing back:
- “I think your proposal is a good one, but here’s what I think we need to do as well.”
- “I feel that your solution won’t address all of our problems.”
- “I want to agree with you on this, but there’s an important aspect of the issue that I don’t feel we’ve addressed yet.”
The right words let you wiggle out of tight corners and regain the high ground. Consider a nightmare scenario. While you’re making a big presentation, your prospect spots an error. Some people will turn red, and others might blame a subordinate. Here’s the riposte suggested by Bacal and Moore: “You know, you’re right that we didn’t take that into account, so these numbers will be off by about 10%. I apologize. We’ll modify the planning document and get you revised copies by 5 o’clock this afternoon.” Isn’t that the sort of professional, trust-building response you’d like to have on the tip of your tongue?
Now, let’s say you need to talk to that chronically tardy employee. How would you word this conversation so he feels inspired, not persecuted? Here’s Bacal’s and Moore’s version: “I notice you’ve been late a few times this month. Next month, I’d like to see you arrive on time every time. I’ll help if I can. Then I’d like to meet with you at the end of next month to see how you’ve done on this.”
And then there’s the ritual every entrepreneur hates: job interviews. How do you know what to ask? We all know we’re supposed to pose tough, open-ended questions, but most of us melt after “Tell me about yourself.” Bacal and Moore offer surefire conversation-starters:
- “What did you like most about your previous job? What did you like least?”
- “Can you give me an example of an accomplishment in your work history that has made you proud?”
- “Think about when you had a conflict with a colleague in a previous job. What did you do?”
Bacal learned about organizational effectiveness and personal development as a training specialist with the Manitoba government (and has earned his entrepreneurial chops as a self-employed consultant since 1992). Moore is a former systems analyst who now works with Bacal on books and content development for their various websites (e.g., work911.com). Bacal says their book aims to do more than offer simple solutions: “A perfect phrase helps you get your point across, but it also stimulates your own thinking on these issues.”
Perhaps you’d like your employees to work longer hours due to the economic downturn. Some bosses would avoid such a request, since they wouldn’t know how to phrase it. Bacal and Moore suggest not only the right words but also a philosophical approach that will make that pact a win-win: “I am asking you for more hours at the same pay. I understand some of you can’t do that, or don’t feel comfortable with it. That’s fine. It’s up to you. But for those who choose to stay, here’s the bonus plan I’m putting in place, so if we hit our targets, you’ll make much more money.”
Saying the right thing, then, is more than just stating clearly what you want. It’s also about thinking ahead to how events will balance out. If you’re correcting an error, commit to a deadline to make things right. If you’re setting an employee straight, establish a time limit to discuss the improvement. If you’re asking employees to sacrifice for the company, explain how the company will make it up to them.
The perfect phrase isn’t just about increasing your influence, although there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s also about making you a more thoughtful master of a shared better future.