Knowing what to say in a difficult situation is hard for anyone, and especially hard for leaders who are trying to navigate stormy waters with a team in tow. However, knowing what not to say is just as difficult and perhaps even more important right now.
Mary Shores, a multi-million-dollar CEO, best-selling author, and sought-after speaker, had a debt collection agency for over 20 years. Working in this challenging industry, along with her extensive training in neuroscience, Mary has become an expert in communications.
She gave her top five tips to help you better communicate with your team, clients and colleagues during this crisis. Here’s what not to say.
1. Avoid saying: “You should have…”
“To create lasting connections and get your clients and team members to be open to your solutions, it’s important to talk with them rather than at them. The phrase, ‘You should have’ sounds like the start of a lecture, and when people feel like they’re being lectured or judged, they can become closed off to the rest of the conversation,” says Shores. “Instead use the phrase ‘What I can suggest is’ because it changes the focus of the conversation to the solution rather than the problem. By saying what can be done, you help people move forward – which also makes people feel valued and builds their confidence in your abilities.”
2. Avoid saying: “Calm down.”
Sometimes the way we are conditioned to speak is the opposite of what will work. The phrase “calm down” – even when it’s said with the best intentions – has the power to stir people up even more. Your listeners might view this as a criticism of their emotional state, which can lead to more conflict than connection.
The coronavirus has touched every one of us in some way and caused a great amount of fear and uncertainty. This fear and uncertainty also affects people’s ability to be present in conversations and connect with others. As a business leader, communicating with empathy must be top of mind.
“One of the best ways I know to express empathy is to make people feel heard. Validating your clients and teams’ experiences with the phrase ‘I know this is a challenge,’ or ‘I can understand the uncertainty you feel,’ does that,” notes Shores.
When we find someone who connects with our struggles (or triumphs), we feel cared for and supported. We begin to see that person as an ally, and a level of trust forms. On the other hand, when we don’t feel heard, we have a hard time moving on in a conversation or being emotionally receptive to a solution from that person.
“Hearing the words, ‘I know this is a challenge’ slows people down and cancels a fight-or-flight response. It also helps people see you as an ally they want to engage with further,” adds Shores.
3. Avoid saying: “Everything will be ok.”
Like the phrase “calm down,” the phrase “everything will be ok” can have a similar effect of creating more conflict than connection. Despite your best intentions, the phrase can come across as tone-deaf. People will sometimes use this phrase when they’re not sure what else to say.
“‘Everything will be ok’ is also vague and lacks a sense of action. Telling people it will all be ok without explaining why you feel that way or what specifically will be ‘ok’ can lead them to question your sincerity,” advises Shores.
If you find yourself wanting to use the phrase “Everything will be ok,” try giving people specifics they can hold onto and introduce that information using the phrase, “The great news is… .”
“Hearing the words ‘The great news is’ can instantly give people a sigh-of-relief. It’s like you’re planting a seed of happiness in their minds that something positive is on its way. By providing specifics, you also reassure people that they have been heard and it builds their confidence in you,” says Shores.
4. Avoid saying: “Don’t worry about it.”
There are a few reasons why business leaders should avoid the phrase “Don’t worry about it.” For one, this phrase can come across as dismissive or condescending, especially when you can’t provide specifics for why someone shouldn’t be worried. Just because you tell someone “don’t worry” doesn’t automatically make them less worried.
“The word ‘don’t’ is actually banned from my office. We’ve found that when people hear the word ‘don’t’ or other negative words like ‘no,’ ‘not,’ ‘can’t,’ or ‘won’t,’ they stop listening to us. Hearing these words gives people a punch-in-the-gut feeling and can cause them to enter panic mode because they’re afraid their needs aren’t going to be met. Hearing the phrase ‘don’t worry,’ can actually make people feel guilty for having worries,” says Shores.
“Instead of telling your clients and team members ‘Don’t worry about it,’ try redirecting the conversation to what you think they should be focused on instead using the phrase, ‘Let’s focus on x,y,z.’”
Communicating what to do as opposed to what not to do moves the situation forward by focusing on the solution.
5. Avoid saying: “You will be fine.”
“You will be fine,” is another phrase that can easily come across as insincere.
“If you want to put people’s mind at ease, help them see the situation through your point of view. You can introduce your information using the phrase, ‘What I’d really like you to know is… .’ Even if you don’t have all the answers, sharing what you do know can give people some peace of mind. ‘We’re doing x,y,z, to look into that.’ can go a long way,” notes Shores.
We can’t control everything about the current situation, but we can control how we communicate and respond. Let’s make empathy and connection top of mind.
About the author
Stephanie Burns is a contributor to ForbesWomen. Her company, Chic-CEO.com, is an online resource for over 100,000 female entrepreneurs.
To learn more and subscribe to Forbes newsletters, visit forbes.com.
Contents of this article remain the property of the author and/or publisher.