It’s not what you say but how you say it. I am sure you have heard it before and maybe someone has told you that about something you said recently. You may be completely right or factual in what you said however when you put the person ill at ease, you lose.

Here’s an example of why how you say it is more important than what you say:

Andrea has worked with her boss for a little over a new year. Their relationship has been rocky.

To be honest, it is probably because her boss is an average leader who is not very good at communication. Andrea has a strong subordinate following in the organization and has cultivated good relationship with some of the senior leaders. Andrea too is not a good communicator, especially when she is under stress.

Now that you know their relationship is challenged and you probably have guessed that the boss feels a bit threatened, you won’t be surprised to hear they have had a few tense moments over the year. Each tension point revolved around poor communication from BOTH sides.

This morning I was talking to Andrea and she was relaying a series of tense workplace moments involving her boss. She has made the decision to apply for some different positions in the organization to get into an area where there is less stress and a steadier schedule. As she was talking about the positions, she said these were positions where her current boss did not need to be informed of her wish to move out of the group.

In fact she said that her boss noticed that she was in the Human Resources Department and asked why she was there. Her response: “I know a lot of people here and I have a right to talk to whomever I want”.

I asked her how her boss responded and she said: “He got defensive”.

My response to Andrea, “I would have gotten defensive too if you had said that to me.”

She said, “But it is true.”

And that’s when I said, “You are right, it is true. It is not what you say but how you say it. You could have communicated a different way and your boss’s reaction would have been different.” The response Andrea gave was challenging, not informative or vague.

For example, Andrea could have said:

  • I had to stop in and check on something (keeping it vague and moving on).
  • I had an appointment with HR (informative without sharing too much information).
  • I like to say “Thank you” to HR for everything they do for us (showing appreciation and diverting the real reason you were there).

This is not the first time that Andrea’s communication style has disrupted her work relationship with her bosses. As a good friend and coach, I recommended she talk to her coach about these patterns and learn how to recognize them and correct them. Simple changes, though often difficult to master, make the difference.