How to Learn Phrasing

Phrasing allows you to maximize the authenticity of what you say while minimizing the negative impact of saying it.

There is nothing that cannot be said so long as it is phrased diplomatically. Even the harshest statements can be softened while keeping their intended meaning. For example, consider the statement:

“You are all a bunch of idiots, and I can’t believe you’re so stupid as to be making such a dumb decision.” 

There are many times when people think this, but never say it, as they have not considered that their meaning can still be expressed while limiting the negative repercussions of expressing it:

“I am surprised that our group would decide to take this course of action considering the alternatives.”

This immediately opens the door for two very productive questions:

  1. Why are you surprised?
  2. What are the alternatives?

This illustrates the point that we often see a problem but don’t know how to draw attention to it because we can’t get past our first thought of how to respond. Mastering phrasing requires that you take your initial idea of how to respond, and rather than throw it away as something that can never be said, find a way to say it that moves the conversation forward productively.

Consider another example of what you might think to say upon reviewing a colleague’s work:

“This is garbage, and I have no idea how you got this job.”

The first and most crucial step of phrasing is to accept that it is possible to express your meaning without causing offense. The challenge, then, is to find a more palatable wording that limits resentment while opening the door for a productive conversation:

“There are ways this can be improved, and I suspect everyone will be impressed when you show them the improved version.”

This invites the question of how it can be improved and conveys the idea that there are team standards that your colleague is falling below.

The process of phrasing can be taken too far, whereby the original meaning is so obscured that it is frustrating to the listener. This is often the core complaint of what people refer to as “political correctness.” Consider your first thought is to say the following:

“This project is doomed to failure unless we get rid of the people that are not pulling their weight.”

A “politically correct” version – meaning a version where the meaning is overly-obscured – may sound like this:

“Our objective is to collaboratively bring this project to a successful conclusion, and to do so will require project participants to engage more deeply with their assignments and commit to increasing productivity by streamlining team efficiency.”

Sadly, this is practically the gold-standard of executive communication, requiring employees to read between the lines and guess at the true meaning of this statement. Attempting to discuss the meaning of confusing statements such as this is often a primary source of office gossip.  

A more clear phrasing would be:

“We will increase our odds of success if we all contribute equally.”

This still carries the essence that the project has a chance of failing and draws attention to the fact that people may not be contributing equally.

The key to learning phrasing is remembering that you do not have to respond immediately. Having a long pause before replying gives the double benefit of giving you time to think of how to phrase what you are thinking, as well as non-verbally communicating that something is not right as you are expending considerable effort to think of what to say. 

When speaking to someone 1-on-1, a long pause before replying is usually tolerated, but if asked for your opinion in a large meeting, you will have only seconds to respond. If you anticipate this happening, it is best to practice several different well-phrased responses before the meeting for each of the types of questions you might be asked. When you are asked a question for which you already have a beautifully phrased response, you only have to repeat what you have memorized. If it is a question you did not anticipate, and you cannot think of a productive phrasing on the spot, often, it is better to delay answering by any means necessary than to share what you genuinely want to say.

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