DR. CUMMINGS: It’s how you say it

May 4, 2014 

OK, you told the truth. You gave the facts. You laid it on the line, but nobody liked it and now nobody likes you, either. How come? Because it’s not what you said. It’s how you said it.

Politics, religion, education, the workplace are all places where we need to analyze not just what we’re going to say, but how we’re going to say it. “You’re fired” can be said in many different ways. I’ve seen lawsuits filed because of the tone that was used, and I’ve seen lifelong friendships flourish out of the same words. How we say it is important.

Politics. Many political races are up for grabs in the next few weeks, and politicians will be debating with each other. You’ll hear every candidate say the same words: economy, taxes, education, crime, etc. But it’s the way this one says it that will make you vote for him and not for the other one. His tone and his mannerisms and his sincerity will cause you to trust him. It won’t be his words. It’ll be what’s behind his words.

Religion. People are asked to believe what can’t be proven. How do snake-handling preachers talk their people into holding and petting those poisonous snakes? How do radical Muslim imams convince young men to strap on bombs and blow themselves up? This takes a lot of charisma, I think, and a long time learning how to say it.

Education. I remember when I walked into my Berkeley classroom in the 1960s and began teaching my first college course to a stoned class of hippies. I quickly threw away the assigned textbook and chose Hefner’s Playboy magazine.

That’s when I realized each student can learn, but each one learns differently. It wasn’t all about what I was teaching. It was all about the way in which it had to be taught.

Workplace. More than all the others, this must be the place where we learn this lesson. You have seen a boss give out a bonus and because of his presentation, it went flat. Every boss needs to analyze the way in which he does the important things, like:

• Corrections. When an employee makes a terrible mistake, like posting a half a million dollars to the wrong account, the boss needs to help the employee focus on the system that failed. For example, his workload or his training or his sloppy desk. The way in which this correction is made will determine future success or repeated failure.

• Delegation. Most bosses don’t explain clearly enough what needs to be done. Why should they? This is something they’ve done themselves for years. “Here, take it. It’s easy.” And then they get angry when deadlines are missed and customers are lost.

• Decision-making. Every good leader wants “buy-in.” If I’m the manager and I decide that all my salespeople should check in at 8 a.m. before hitting the streets, how do I tell them so they think it’s their idea?

Remember this famous quote: “People will forget what you said but not how you made them feel.” It’s not about what you said. It’s all about how you said it.

Dr. Bill Cummings is the CEO of Cummings Consolidated Corp. and Cummings Management Consultants. His website is digitallydrc.com.

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