Leadership: Speaking in "Woulds"

woodchuck"How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?" This old tongue twister is a light-hearted approach to something we have been noticing more and more recently. What we are seeing is a phenomenon of  clients speaking in "woulds.”  Instead of speaking in a direct and declarative way, e.g. “It’s time to deal with this issue, take action on this task, etc.," we are hearing people say “What I would say about that topic is…”  It seems to have become a fairly common way to speak in meetings and such, yet it leaves me wondering what is actually going on with the speaker? It seems very similar to when people speak about a personal experience using “you” to explain it. For example, “well, you know, when you’re cold and tired…” except they are speaking about their own hiking adventure or experience.  Whether you are “speaking in woulds” or “speaking in yous,” in both cases you are subconsciously distancing yourself from your own experience and turning a valuable opportunity for real connection and sharing into just distant story or removed opinion.

The issue for leaders is that if you are speaking in a distant or disconnected fashion your team and co-workers feel it and know it. In order to be able to follow a leader in a truly committed and positive way, teams need to feel some level of safety. (We know there are many leaders who are followed by using a bully stick and that’s not the type of leadership we are talking about here.)

If you are really going to lead you must declare yourself. You must be able to put a stake in the ground. This does not mean being aggressive, antagonistic or being a bully. It means being clear about your point-of-view and being able to articulate it clearly from a place of being open, present and connected with those to whom you are speaking.

Take a minute to self-observe. Have you been a “would-chuck?”  When you hear a “what I would say…” come out of your mouth, what’s going on?  What we believe is that it boils down to the level of safety within a group so how safe do you feel with the group you are in?  How confident are you of your own authentic perspective on the matter?  Are you sending up a “trial balloon” to see if it gets shot down?  After all, if it does, it was only what you “would say,” not anything you really said with your own heart and soul and commitment behind it.  No one would expect to hold you to a mere trial balloon would they?

To raise the stakes and accelerate the action in your conversations, try cleaning up your speaking by using “I” statements without “woulds” and other caveats. Say what you really mean with commitment behind it.  You may notice the “pucker factor” goes up when you speak this way.  So will the productivity and effectiveness of your interactions.

One word about self-observation. We all have to make it on our own 99% of the time, even if we have one or more great coaches and we’re regularly in courses and programs for personal development.  This means, to gain the leverage we want in our leadership conversations, we will be self-coaching most of the time or just repeating our regular level of effectiveness.  Self-coaching means listening to the words that come out of your mouth and noticing how they land with others. You must learn to recognize your impact and, as we have said before, “the emotional wake” you leave behind. (Credit again to Fierce, Inc. for the “emotional wake” terminology.)

When you can hear it/see it happening in the moment, only then will you actually have a real choice to shift. You will have a real moment to coach yourself to high leverage leadership.