What 3 small words make a mighty difference?

MB Leadership, in association with PiR Resourcing, recently launched a series of eMasterclasses entitled “What is the one thing you could do differently today to become a more effective Leader?”

The mighty power of small

I have two children and, whether or not you have children too, the chances are that you will know that these little people invariably teach us more about effective communication than all of the Leadership books, manuals or eMasterclasses put together.

Although my children are now young adults rather than youngsters, my rather humiliating story shows that, whatever age you are, you are never too old to be reminded of this fact.

My 18-year son is starting to sit the final exams of school. The results will be pivotal to securing the place he covets at a leading UK university for his higher education. The first of these exams was his Sports Science Viva and, in my efforts to be a supportive Mum, I used every trick in the book to help him revise, embed and recall his knowledge. The big day came. He was as well prepared as he could have been. I was so proud. All was well…

He returned home crest-fallen. ‘What on earth happened?’ I asked (equally crest-fallen).

It became clear that he’d got a good grade. However, his examiner told him that he had missed out on top honours because, although his analysis of the subject matter presented in the exam had been sound, she had been looking for more depth. ‘You gave me good data’ she said ‘but you didn’t explain why it was important.’

Riding high from the success of the eMasterclass mentioned above, I (stupidly) said it was a shame he hadn’t used that brilliant little word ‘because’ and then proceeded (even more stupidly) to give him examples of how that might have worked in practice.

I survived the consequences of that particular well-intentioned but ill-timed contribution but only just, and will not make that mistake again! However, I thought I’d share my story with you because it illustrates how using the word ‘because’, used in the right way and at the right time, can be the springboard from ‘good’ to ‘gold’.

What did we learn from Xerox (other photocopiers available)?

In 1978 Ellen Langer, Professor of Psychology at Harvard, demonstrated that the word ‘because’ is one of the most powerful words in driving our behaviour.

In a simple and now widely referenced study, Langer’s team directed researchers to approach people who were waiting to use a Xerox photocopier and ask to jump the queue.

They found that people were more likely to let someone cut in if they offered a reason – but, intriguingly, it did not matter if the reason made sense. People were as receptive to a meaningless reason (“to make copies”) as a valid one (“I’m in a rush”), and this, Langer argued, highlighted the extent to which human behaviour is driven by irrational stimuli:

Q1: “Excuse me, I have 5 pages.
May I use the Xerox machine?” (60%)

Q2: “Excuse me, I have 5 pages.
May I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make copies?” (94%)

Q3: “Excuse me, I have 5 pages.
May I use the Xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?” (93%)
Study conducted by Ellen Langer in association with
Benzion Chanowitz and Arthur Blank

Our pragmatic experience is that a lot of the power of this little word lies in the way it simply bridges from data/rational into meaning/emotion.

By integrating ‘because’ mindfully into everyday language, a Leader ensures that any discussion connects with both head and heart for more meaningful outcomes.

But is it truly that simple? Yes, I wholeheartedly believe that it is.

In a previous article, ‘Is your team having the open and honest conversations about what really matters’, we drew on Aristotle’s definition of the roots of all language to softly challenge Leaders to think about how skilfully they reach beyond rational discussion to read the emotional sub-dialogue within a team meeting; how effectively they consciously connect all 3 dimensions within their own communication.

This little word creates the synapses between Logos, Pathos & Ethos. Time and time again I see just how powerful leveraging this tiny asset can be.

If you don’t believe me, try it. Make a conscious effort to integrate this word into your conversations and see where it leads.

From photocopiers to …. rice!

A couple of years back, Dr. Masaru Emoto cooked up a storm with a simple experiment that he conducted to research the power of positivity on living matter and he used rice. Views on the veracity of his experiment are deeply divided but the fact that these experiments are being done at all point to our interest in extending understanding of the power of communication.

The serious point here is this: can a change in the terminology used make a material difference to the outcomes achieved?

One of the senior Leaders who joined us for this eMasterclass made reference to a recent McKinsey article that highlighted a clear link between a Leader’s choice of words and the trajectory of the ensuing discussion.

For example, the way in which Leaders phrase questions strongly influences whether people look for ‘opportunities and possibilities’ as opposed to ‘problems and risks’. McKinsey maintains that this has a direct impact on the quality of strategy development and goal setting, amongst other key elements of a winning formula.

Our experience corroborates this. We see how emotionally intelligent Leaders intuitively select the right small word to influence the trajectory of dialogue and they are quite brilliant at it.

The extraordinary power of ‘and’

As co-ordinating conjunction words go, ‘and’ and ‘but’ are arguably the most powerful junction point in any sentence.

For sure, it is now widely acknowledged that the word ‘but’ is, more often than not, a crushing negator in even the most uplifting of conversations. Trumped only by the phrase ‘Yes but’, this specific word invariably triggers an instinctive emotional reaction that can slam the door shut on any further discussion.

One participant at the eMasterclass asked the question: In such a busy life, how do you catch yourself so that you phrase things in the best way? Great question… and, in response, other webinar participants volunteered a range of ideas including the suggestion that you could ask your team to measure the number of times you use the word ‘but’ and discuss the impact on them.

Again, try it! The frequency of this little word significantly influences perceptions of a Leader’s authenticity, attitude and ability to lead.

And the final (small) word goes to ….

When I was training to qualify as a Coach, I learned that one of the mainstays of the coaching toolbox is to actively transpose what and how to help clients transition into a more meaningful conversation.

This is such a simple switch that any Leader who is committed to a coaching-style of leadership can make to open up a whole new vista of dialogue for their people.

For example, when you switch from the more traditional What are you doing?’ type of question to How are you doing?’ the dialogue immediately leans towards the type of conversation that a Coaching-style of Leader will be adept at having. It works the other way too. Try switching ‘How are you feeling?’ with What are you feeling?’

Tread cautiously with this ‘Quick Win’ though. Emotionally intelligent leadership calls on all of your intuition and communication skills to make sure that you have created the safety and sensitivity necessary to honour the trust that must always underpin these emotionally connected conversations.

In conclusion.

So, did you learn anything new? Probably not because most of us know the theory. However, few of us mindfully activate these tiny tricks of great leadership.

We need to create new habits and this is tough. Research has shown that, on average, it takes 66 days of making a conscious choice to do something differently before it becomes habit*…but the ROI is tremendous.

I do hope that this article and the others is this series have inspired you to at least give Day 1 a go!

Do let me know how you get on… I’d love to know what works for you!


*The European Journal of Social Psychology, a health psychology research at University College London: Phillippa Lally

This article has been written by: Annalise Cowley, Director of Mansfield Buchanan.

An experienced Consultant and qualified Coach, Annalise works exclusively with LifeSciences clients worldwide and helps Leaders and their teams to use insight into what people need and value to deliver the business results that matter.

Published: 16.03.2015

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