No one hears what you say, they only hear how you feel.

Self Awareness | May 16, 2023

“All I said was, ‘It’s not your best work,’ and she got so mad. I don’t understand!”

Suni was tough.

We’d been working together for a while and I’d watched her totally transform. From a CMO no one wanted to approach, whose co-founder and CEO practically demanded she get coaching, Suni had become an exemplary client. She was everyone’s favorite – people sought out her opinion, retention on her team was high.

And we still had work to do.

“Well,” I said, “when you put it like that, ‘It’s not your best work,’ all someone is going to hear is, ‘This work is not good.’”

“But that’s not what I meant!” Suni said, her eyebrows jumping up. “I meant it was good. It just wasn’t her best. And we all know how great her best is…”

“Ok, I get that,” I said. “So, what was the feeling you were trying to convey?”

Suni paused. “I was trying to express that the quality of my co-founder’s work is so high that that’s what I’ve come to expect. And when she is operating at that level, she is really incredible. What she showed me just wasn’t there yet.”

No matter what you say, people around you are going to react to how you really feel. That’s why the old advice to replace “but” with “and” can only take you so far.

If you say “and” when you mean “but,” your colleagues will hear “but.”

Words have energy. They also carry a lot of history. Even though she’d changed quite a bit, Suni’s colleagues knew her as hyper critical. Simply reframing her statement: “This isn’t your best work” to something like, “You do such great work, and this isn’t your best” wasn’t going to cut it, either. The “but” in that statement still rang out. What Suni was conveying was: “I’m disappointed.”

Leaders: everyone in the room will always know what you’re really thinking. Say whatever you want, your colleagues will react to how you feel.

In order to authentically change that “but” to an “and” you have to look inward. Through inner work, you can learn to connect to the emotions underpinning your words. The emotions underpinning your words are your belief systems.

True power lies in becoming aware of how your belief systems show up in the way you speak.

Starting to wonder if your belief systems are getting in the way of your best intentions?

Want to know how Suni could have communicated differently?

Pick up a copy of my book, Who You Are Is How You Lead. In it, I describe how leaders like Suni do the inner work to connect to who they are at their core, and show up with intention, power, and authenticity.

Rachel Rider
Executive Coach, Leadership Consultant