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Virtues of Government Service – Number 5: Your Voice

The Words We Use

Words can be a weapon or a wellspring of creative beauty. Some people are born with the gift of gab.  They easily wax eloquently about whatever subject is at hand. Most people, including history’s most admired speakers and writers, work hard choosing and using the right words. Churchill comes to mind. Who can ever forget “We will never surrender!”

And, more homespun, Mark Twain who, when speaking about words, said the following: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. Tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.

The Importance of Self-Talk

Science has proven that self-talk is usually 80 percent or more negative.  While that’s an unfortunate truth, it’s not a life sentence. The predisposition for negative self-talk occurred over the millenniums as a self-defense mechanism. It helped keep us alive. That said, it’s highly advisable to quell the tendency to be ruthless and even down-right rude when addressing yourself. Try a little tenderness. Most of us would never condemn another human with the words we often use on ourselves. The wonderful actress, Angela Lansbury, helped reduce the habit of harshly criticizing herself by simply saying, “Squelch that thought” whenever the negativity crept in.

And, don’t worry about talking to yourself. It’s quite natural. Here’s Mark Twain again, “I’m always in conversation and sometimes other people are involved.

The ABC’s of a Strong Voice

To increase the power of your voice, try the following:

A–Affirmations: Tell yourself out loud who you are and what you want to be. Tony Robbins goes beyond “affirmations.” Incantations change the physiology and achieve greater impact. He explains that incantations involve the body as well as the voice. Before every speech he goes through a variety of physical moves as he repeats out loud, “I am going to improve peoples’ lives today!”

B–Bravery: Each day, manifest your bravery in some small, spoken way. Have that difficult conversation or confrontation you’ve been avoiding. But also, go out of your way to say a kind word to someone. Or apologize to someone you may have offended. And if someone cuts you off in traffic, drop the funny “F” bomb – Fascinating! The irony diffuses the situation and helps to keep things in perspective.

C–Commitment: Life gives us excuses. Commitment relegates them to the trash heap. At the Air Force Academy, during Basic Cadet Training (BCT), we were allowed only five responses when speaking to an Upperclassman. One of them was “No excuse, Sir.” That may have changed by now but I’ve not forgotten. Sometimes “No excuse, Sir or Ma’am” is the only thing to say.

Your Voice is a Powerful Tool

We need only look at our national leadership to understand the importance of this statement. If we want to have an impact on the discussion, we must determine how best to communicate our thoughts, beliefs and ideas. To have greater credibility and influence as well as greater emotional wellbeing, we want to control our behavior more from the part of our brain that is imaginative and empathic, rather than the part which is instinctually defensive.

As a government employee, keep in mind that many people think that you represent an official position when you speak so choose your words wisely.

 The Language of Leaders

In general, and despite the harsh rhetoric of politics today, try to use a calm, modulated tone of voice. “Trust in Providence and keep your powder dry. You can’t trust a bullet with wet powder.” Save your loud voice for when you really need it. Language and the tone of “voice” and body language coalesce to determine the influence we have and the impact we make. If you’re a leader, consider the following advice. When you’re tempted to pontificate, think first (always a good rule) of these three tips:

  1. Consider what you must say and if it should be said, are you the best person to say it?
  2. Is this the right time and setting to say it?
  3. Is there someone else who could say it (for you)?

The point is by conserving your words you protect the power of your words while encouraging the ideas and words of others in your group or on your team. And remember that your word is your bond. What you say plays a huge role in the culture you create. What we speak is what we create. Your voice is a call to action. A great manager knows when to talk and, more importantly, when to listen. Additionally, after hearing concerns or feedback, a good manager acts. Think back to the leaders you’ve looked up to. It’s almost guaranteed they were great communicators who followed up with action.

You can practice and improve your speaking and listening skills. Try keeping these questions in the back of your mind.

  1. Did I understand you to say…
  2. Did you mean… when you said..
  3. Could you describe in more detail what you meant when you said..
  4. Are you saying that…

While good, meaningful dialogue is more art than science, it’s also a skill that can be learned, honed and leverage to good advantage. The following four thoughts can help all parties in a dialogue.

EVALUATE. What’s being said? Don’t assume anything. Eliminate pre-conceptions.

ANALYZE. Eliminate bias and predisposition. Use all the data available to you. If the news is difficult or negative, resist the temptation to shoot the messenger.

UNDERSTAND. As you review, bear in mind your entire population which includes many different constituents, employee segments and groups.

CONCLUDE. Keep an open mind.  The data will lead you to an accurate depiction of your own culture. Be data-driven, not drama-driven!

 Final Words on Your Voice

 Try saying thank you more often. And soon, say “Happy Birthday, USA!” Thank you.

 Rick Pfautz is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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