The Impact of Small Words

The words we choose matter.  They are powerful conveyors of ideas and emotions.  We are aware of the fact when writing Mission and Vision Statements, but we may lose sight of their importance in our more casual interchanges. It’s the little words that can move us forward or trip us up. The words that we use or don’t use effect how we are perceived and received. When we are in a hurry to get to what’s next we have a tendency to drop what used to be called “social niceties.” It results in diminished civility that can cost us in our relationships.

Maybe it’s because we communicate more through texts and other electronic media, but I’ve noticed “please” is disappearing from many interactions. If we are approaching someone to assist them, we probably say, “please,” but all too often when working with others, we are quick to move to “Could you” or “Would you” without introducing the request with “Please.”

A small word yet changes the tone of the conversation. There is a difference between, “Can I have a word with you?” and “Please, may I have a moment of your time?” Once we put “please’ first, it changes how the rest of the sentence goes.  “Please” recognizes you are making a request of someone and acknowledges their right to refuse.  The good news is, when asked politely, most people won’t refuse.  Civility smooths the path.

If you remember to use “please,” it is natural to then say “Thank you” at the conclusion of the conversation. “Thanks” is not quite as good, but both show you appreciate what the other person has done or agreed to do. Either are far better than “great” which is how we too often close our conversations. This acknowledges the situation not the person. Again, a subtle but important difference.

You also want to use “thank you” when having been given a compliment and stopping there. There is a tendency to return a compliment.  This has the result of diminishing the ‘thank you,” as well as the compliment, reducing it into “I’m saying this because you said something nice.”  When you simply accept the praise, you show you value it.

After “thank you” easily comes “you’re welcome.” It’s gracious and acknowledges someone’s gratitude.

Just as there are words which improve your communication, there are the small words that detract from your impact.  These are the ones we insert unthinkingly and tend to be personal conversation idiosyncrasies. For example, you may have a tendency to use “actually” to introduce something. If you overuse it, it can sound like a contradiction. “For what it’s worth” is a filler that can make it sound as though what you are offering isn’t of value. Listeners may discount what you say over time. Tune into yourself to hear if there are phrases you use repeatedly. 

For other filler phrases (both spoken and written) Grammarly discusses What Are Filler Words and How You Can Cut Them. It’s worth reviewing. The more you eliminate filler words, the easier it is for readers and listeners to focus on the point you are making.

In being aware of and using the social niceties, you show the small touches of caring for others that make people enjoy working with you. It shows that despite the pressures and stress we’re under, you are mindful of what your colleagues and students mean to you. You take the time to show they matter. By dropping filler words, your communication is clearer, and your relationships are likely to be stronger.  You put yourself and your program in the best possible light by being mindful of both.

ON LIBRARIES: Living the Characteristics of a Leader

To become that indispensable member of the educational community, you must show exceptional leadership. It’s as simple as that. As a topic I speak and writing on frequently, I also know that many librarians hear this and worry. They are already doing so much. How can they add more to their work and be a leader?  What I am proposing is not so much an added list of things to do, but rather a reminder of how to be. We are, after all, in the relationship business, and true leadership comes from how we are with the people in our lives.

Assume that your Vision, Mission and initiatives are all supporting your school to take it a step further Scott Cochrane tells us How to Spot Leadership Character With 10 Easy Signs, and those signs are the ones you can incorporate into your actions with others. They are simple and straightforward.   You probably have many of them, but some may have been lost in your struggles.  It’s time to get them back.

Here’s how people with leadership character behave:

  1. They receive a compliment with grace That not only means saying, “thank you,” it means not minimizing what the giver said or trying to return an equal one.
  2. They receive negative feedback with humility and non-defensivenessThis one can be tough, especially when you are under stress.  The key is to assume positive intent.  If possible, thank the person and then take time when you don’t feel hurt to assess the negative feedback for validity.
  3. They give voice to disagreement while still extending respect It’s not about keeping silent. It’s about how you respond.  Ruth Bader Ginsberg said, “You can disagree without being disagreeable.”
  4. They give thoughtful answers, not off-the-cuff reactions Learning to pause before responding will improve the quality of your answer (this is one I continue to work on!).  It will have the added benefit of improving your relationship with the person who asked the question. They will recognize you value what they say.
  5. They might criticize the merits of an idea, but not the person bringing the idea to the table In our contentious time, this is a most valuable reminder. It is an extension of #3. Don’t make the ideas of others personal. Discuss why and idea works or doesn’t and don’t discuss the person who suggested it.
  6. Their apologies are unreserved; they don’t say, “I’m sorry, but” or “I’m sorry if…”   “I’m sorry if I offended you,” is not an apology.  It’s blaming the other person for the offense they took.  Own what you said, accept that it may have landed wrong, and mean it.
  7. If they don’t know the answer to a question, they say so; they don’t bluff their way through There is nothing wrong with not have an immediate answer. Librarians recognize, we don’t know all the answers – just where to find them.  People see through a bluff, and the attempt diminishes you in their eyes.
  8. They never “humble-brag” Related to #1, being self-deprecating with the intention of calling attention to your work is not a leadership quality. When you say, “I really didn’t do that much,” “It wasn’t that hard,” you are fishing for a compliment or downplaying the work you did. Be careful. Eventually, people might believe that you didn’t do that much.
  9. Their conversation includes plenty of “pleases” and “thank you’s” Between texting and being harried, we have become lax in these once automatic phrases.  They have power, particularly if the way you say them shows you mean what you say.  I had a superintendent of schools in a district that kept education on a stringent budget.  She got incredible mileage of knowing how to specifically compliment key faculty and say a meaningful thanks. It costs nothing and strengthens relationships.
  10. Their words shine the spotlight on others – Always! As a leader you give credit to others for the successes and notice when things work. When you do that, not only do you get little or no negative feedback from what didn’t work, but others feel safe in working with you.  Teachers recognize that the focus on projects won’t be on mistakes, and they will be celebrated for their achievements.

Tune into how you are interacting with others.  Look for ways to put these leadership character traits into your day (at home as well as at work).  You will see a difference and without adding more to your workload you will be a stronger leader.

ON LIBRARIES: The Opportunities of Interesting Times

The quote “May you live in interesting times”, which supposedly has a Chinese origin, can be taken two ways. Is it a blessing or a curse? It all depends on how you see interesting times. For some the constant uncertainty is debilitating. Others see new possibilities. The difference is in how you respond, and your reaction is a choice even if you don’t notice making a conscious one.

Either you need to find a way to be proactive and choose to steer in a positive direction, or you’ll end up being reactive and allow the situation to steer you. Both can be exhausting, but with one you’ll likely be more energized and positive.

To actively steer your ship (read: be a leader), you need to be willing to carve out time to analyze your situation and develop a strategy which involves evaluating your assets, strengths and weaknesses, and learning from past behaviors and choices. Once you do this, you must commit to taking action.

In How to Turn Disaster Into Discovery — A Key to ResiliencyEileen McDargh proposes theses six questions to guide you into “intelligent optimism” which in turn will let you find the opportunities in these interesting times:

  1. What has become clear to you in the last few months? You should be able to come up with a number of items. What have you learned about relationships (professional and personal)?  What was true before the pandemic that is still true now?  How has your Mission Statement held up in the face of COVID-19?  How well do you handle ambiguity and uncertainty? Is this something you’d like to improve?  What’s making you feel successful?  Don’t forget to notice these.
  2. Where are you spending energy without getting the desired results? This is an important question. Are you still locked in tasks that belong to the past and don’t further your aims? The opposite question is equally important. Which use of your energy has been producing positive results? Your plate is very full. It is time to eliminate or minimize time spent on things that don’t move you forward. As we learn from the Pareto Principle or the Law of 80/20, 80% of the results come from 20% of the work. But sometimes 80% of the work only brings 20% of the results. It’s time to take a closer look at efforts and results.
  3. If you could start from scratch, how would you redesign your job, this business? This isn’t a question we normally think about, but since normal has taken a vacation, it’s worth considering. You have the opportunity to rethink how the library can function better, reach more students, and be a greater partner to teachers and administrators. Look for how the library can lead the way now and in whatever future is coming. The physical space is part of this envisioning, but so is the digital — and emotional—one. What can be done to make the library a safe, welcoming environment for all?  What is your role in this new ecosystem?
  4. What have you uncovered about your personal life that needs to be encouraged? Have you, like many, made more time for friends and relatives. Are you Zooming and calling them on a regular schedule?  How have your interactions at home changed? For the better?  What are you doing for yourself? It’s become very apparent in the last six months how important supportive relationships are. Continue to seek out and nourish these.
  5. How can we grow together as a supportive unit and what do you need from me? I love this question. It is essential that we build relationships and community. This question should be uppermost in your mind as you speak and deal with students, parents, teachers, and administrators. As the ALA initiative says, “Libraries transform communities.” How are you building and transforming yours? And as a bonus, this question may also work well at the dinner table or with your online/virtual social groups.
  6. What are the small steps you can create to work in a more collaborative way? This is where the other questions have been leading us. Here is where you create a plan. It doesn’t have to be complicated. It just needs regular steps – of any size – to take you where you want to go.

Get started now to chart your future. Every few months stop and review these questions to see what new information you can use. Leaders need to know themselves and use that knowledge to plan for the future. When you do that, you can make these interesting times a growth opportunity.