How important are the words we use?

Within our work teams, we know that communication is an essential skill that the best leaders have perfected. Last year gave us the opportunity to test our communication skills, as we had to rely more on technology than face-to-face interactions. Everybody interprets conversations differently, especially without the benefit of gesticulation and facial expressions. Working remotely has helped us think twice before hitting the “send” button to make sure our message is clear.

Everybody has different communication styles, and learning how to adapt to your team members’ styles can help you succeed. Failing to do so can impact your work relationships. We might take a comment from a boss as words of encouragement, while another person might find the same comment demotivating, because we see our interactions through our own emotional lens — a concept known as hermeneutics.

Words are open to interpretation, and it is crucial to acknowledge that our language has the power to influence others. In fact, becoming aware of how your language is affecting others is the first step in becoming more emotionally intelligent. In the workplace, especially if we hold a leadership position, we should all be mindful of how we communicate. For example, positive speech can impact your co-workers and help you have a more positive mindset.

According to Andrew Newberg, M.D., and Mark Waldman, words can change your brain. Their research, discussed in their book, found that “angry words send alarm messages through the brain, and they partially shut down the logic-and-reasoning centers in the frontal lobes.” Furthermore, as Dr. Talib Kafaji writes in “The Sly Mind,” negative words can disrupt the genes that are key to the production of neurochemicals that protect us from stress. In other words, approaching work situations with negative and pessimistic words can make you more prone to stress.

Understanding the power of words can help you handle difficult situations more effectively and have a greater impact. One strategy is to use positive phrasing, which is easier to understand than negative phrasing and will make you sound more confident and concise. Instead of saying, “We will not be leaving until the reports are finished,” for example, try saying, “We will leave when we finish the reports.”

Gallup research has found that only one in 10 people have a natural talent for managing others, meaning that nine out of 10 managers likely need to work on their leadership skills — including communication. Here are some effective ways to improve your communication as a leader:


Being self-aware will help keep you from reacting unreasonably. Pause before speaking; taking a moment to consider how to respond to a person or situation can help you substitute words that may hinder your work relationships. Being self-aware will also prompt you to be more positive and proactive when encountering problems. For example, saying, “Let’s look into other options” sounds more in control than the common but cynical, “We’re back to square one.”

Show Appreciation

Appreciate the effort that your team members put into their work, and be more considerate by, for example, asking, rather than demanding, for help to complete a project. A simple “can you help?” will make team members feel more respected.

Include the Team

Including your team members in decisions by asking for their opinions helps to build trust and shows that you value their input. Despite common belief, people who ask for advice are seen as more competent than people who do not.

Mind Your Tone

Be mindful of your voice, whether you are communicating face to face or virtually. Your tone can change your message and affect how others perceive you, so make sure that it is clear and appropriate to the situation at hand.

Reflecting on how your words can influence others, negatively and positively, can help you to respond more effectively and achieve better results. Words can change emotions and actions, and leaders must hold themselves accountable for how they communicate to ensure that people understand their intention. We have the freedom to choose the words we say in every interaction — so, let’s use our words well!