When you think about your annual physical exam, you may be worried that your doctor is going to criticize your choices (like eating too much steak and not enough salad), deliver disappointing news, or find something frightening. Those are the kinds of concerns that prevent people from reaching out to their physician for help. But feeling judged, disheartened, or afraid isn't just for patients. It may be how your colleagues, clients or direct reports feel if you're not thoughtful about the words you use.

Author Yehuda Berg wrote, "Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate and to humble." Doctors know that their words can be a part of the healing process - or deepen the hurting. And leaders in every industry need to recognize this as well.

In a recent workshop I led, 30 doctors shared what words they avoid using because they're likely to increase fear and decrease motivation. We then discussed what words they use instead, because they're more likely to increase hope and decrease resistance.

Based on that conversation, here are three substitutions that you can make (and no medical license necessary):

1. Don't say "lazy", say "busy".

In the doctor's office: A cardiologist tells her patient that she needs to start exercising regularly in order to reduce her risk of a heart attack. The patient agrees, and yet, in the follow-up appointment, she admits that she hasn't started hitting the gym. She cites work and family obligations as barriers.

Which approach do you think would be likely to help the patient to make a change moving forward?

"I can see that you're really lazy" or "I can see that you're really busy."

In your office: "Lazy" implies that someone is unwilling to do the work or make the effort. And while you may have a colleague, client or direct report whom you really think isn't willing to sweat (literally or figuratively), calling him "lazy" is not likely to inspire him to roll up his sleeves and become proactive. In fact, using the word "lazy" tends to make others feel judged and criticized. (And you know what judged and criticized people don'tdo? They don't start working harder!)  

Instead, acknowledge that your colleague is "busy", and empathize with the fact that he may be trying to manage multiple competing priorities. Then see how you can support him in removing some of the roadblocks, or re-prioritizing his workload, or even getting curious about when he thinks he can commit to tackling this task.

2. Don't say "ruin", say "wake-up call".

In the doctor's office: A dermatologist diagnoses and removes an early-stage skin cancer from a patient who enjoys being outdoors. The doctor also notices tanning, freckling, and other indicators of sun-exposure, and wants the patient to start wearing sunscreen on a daily basis.

Which language is more likely to inspire this new habit?

"You're ruining your skin." Or "Your skin is giving you a wake-up call."

In your office: While telling your colleague that her lack of proofreading is ruining the deliverable - and your trust in her - might shame her into compliance, it's not likely to give her a sense of control over the future.  When you see a small problem, address it immediately as a "wake up call" for your colleague to get it handled before it escalates into something bigger - with potentially permanent ramifications. 

3. Don't say "can't", say "opportunity to...".

In the doctor's office: An orthopedist identifies that his patient, an avid runner, has a stress fracture in her foot. Exercise is an important factor in this patient's physical and mental health, and yet, she needs to take some time off from running in order to heal.

Which do you think would be likely to help this patient stay physically active and emotionally positive?

"You can't run for the next eight weeks while your foot heals." Or "The next 8 weeks will be an opportunity for you to strengthen other muscle groups while your foot heals."

In your office: Your direct report wants to take on a new, challenging project - and "own it". You don't think he has the knowledge or the skill to have the level of autonomy that he thinks he's ready for. You could tell him, "I can't let you run with it," which may undercut his enthusiasm. You could tell him, "You can't do this on your own yet," which may sap his confidence. Or, you could tell him, "Let's use this project a learning opportunity. Let's partner together on it this time, with the goal of you being able to take it on yourself next time."

You don't have to be a doctor to work on your "bedside manner". With a few tweaks to your language, you can engage, motivate and inspire others to make challenging changes less daunting.

Published on: Jan 9, 2019