Select the right words. Say them well.


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Every experienced leader – and some inexperienced leaders – have found themselves in a tough position. They are the messenger when they don’t believe in the message. Can you feel yourself breaking into a sweat just thinking about the possibilities? It can happen at all levels. Think of a tough Board of Director’s decision the CEO has to explain to the entire company (layoffs/downsizing/change of direction) to the new uniforms at a local fast food place (“Are you serious? I can’t be seen wearing this!”).

Too often people approach this dilemma in a kind of simple-minded fashion: “Gee, I don’t like this and I don’t want to stand up and lie to everyone.” For a leader it is not about lying, but instead delivering a nuanced message that lets people know what is happening without saying you think it’s great.

If you stay around long enough you will face this situation – probably many times. Your reaction and how you handle the situation will be impacted by your position, your experience and the culture in your organization. Here are three sentences to get you started.

“We’re all adults here…” This simple phrase says, to those who are smart enough to pick up on it, that this is the way it is – we don’t have to like it, but if we want to stay here we’ll need to understand what’s happening. There will always be those who strongly disagree. Some may leave. You may leave. But your job description can involve delivering this message and the “We’re all adults here…” says, “Yea, I get it, but this is the reality we face.”

“I understand some of you may disagree…” This is an even more direct way of addressing the elephant in the room. With the right setting and culture, it’s possible to put your cards on the table this way. It also helps to cut short some of the grousing that can come with change or bad news. You are letting people know you understand they don’t like what they are hearing, and you can offer some ways for them to process what you are telling them.

“Until we run the place, we don’t get to make all the calls…” Sometimes a reminder of the reality we face as employees is not a bad approach. Use of the word “we” also implies you may disagree with the news. You can always substitute “you” if it is a better fit. There are always a few people in a group who are quick to criticize but would never actually step out and lead or start their own
business. Sometimes those people need to be reminded they would be best served by keeping their mouth shut.

Showing you are genuine with your team is critical, even on days when you are delivering a message you don’t love. To varying degrees, you can show your hand to them, depending upon the atmosphere in which you work. Standing up and saying you LOVE something you HATE is no way to lead. I hope these thoughts and options help you feel a bit more comfortable on what can be a very uncomfortable day.

Cary Pfeffer is the founder of ClearComm Consulting,, a Phoenix, AZ-based communications consulting firm which is helping people tell their story. He works with clients to make the most of their media and live audience communication.

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