Use Your Words and Finish Your Sentences

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BLUF – Leadership involves overcoming emotional responses and staying focused on solving problems. “Use your words and finish your sentences” is a simple method borrowed from parenting that can be applied to the workplace.

After reaching almost 17 years of service, one lesson I continue to expect of myself and of others to “Use Your Words, Finish Your Sentences.” If this sounds like something a parent might say to an calm down their emotional 3 year old who needs to be talked out of a tantrum, you are exactly right. Parenting techniques can effectively be used at work too! I use this phrase when I have conversations where teammates encounter a difficult problem or individual that can potentially derail us quickly. Here’s a breakdown of what I mean:

Use Your Words – The first part of the phrase is aimed to get the individual to convert their frustrations into words. I’m looking for the transition of the negative energy they are currently experiencing into an object that is leaving their body in the form of spoken word. Sometimes negative words are interlaced within the conversation, of which I’ll point out to make sure I understand what parts of the story are objectively accurate and which parts are emotionally skewed. One word I often immediately check for is “hate”, which I view as a type of absolute word that is said often, yet rarely true. When my son says, “My sister NEVER shares her dessert,” he’s being more emotional than objective. When I hear the sentence the word “I HATE attending working groups with Sergeant Last Name…”, I say “Hate is really strong word, do you mean you really don’t like?” If they agree (and sometimes they don’t), I ask why they chose to use that word to understand their emotions. Are they frustrated at the situation? At the people they have to work with? Did an event happen at home that is bleeding into work? By taking the time to understand the emotions being experienced, we can carefully set those emotions aside so we can solely focus on the work.

Finish Your Sentences – Assuming the emotions have been carefully set aside, finishing your sentence means to avoid getting stuck on admiring the problem. Too often teams can get caught in a loop of assigning blame on external factors (others not contributing, lack of time/funds, etc.) and don’t accomplish anything. Keeping the conversation going until potential solutions are drawn out is the responsibility of a leader. Complaining in a group environment is an easy trap to fall into. Once a complaint is shared, hearing someone else say “Yes, you are right!” to validate your emotions feels good, yet ultimately doesn’t make any forward progression towards fixing the problem. I believe people are inherently interested in self-preservation, which can manifest itself as a defense mechanism of complaining or placing blame on external factors. When my daughter complains to me that she has no money to buy the latest K-pop album she can’t live without, I respond with “…so what do you think you can do to earn money?” (which involves refocusing on the chores she gets paid to do, but I digress). Leaders need to continuously develop their ability to help themselves and others work through difficult situations, rely on their teammates to stay focused on generate solutions, and take the high road to overcome frustrating obstacles. Expressing frustrations and complaints is human nature and not an issue, as long as the conversation gets re-vectored on the path to fixing the problem.

So take my advice as a Leader/Parent/Coach: Use your words and finish your sentences.

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