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Helpful Straight Talking – Front load the sentence

The British are renowned for not being direct. Being polite and not wishing to offend means that we often ‘flower up’ our conversation to take sting out. However, this can often cause more difficulties than it resolves long term, especially in leadership. I have worked with leaders who, in their desire to not offend and keep things harmonious, end up making it far worse because issues are not dealt with effectively. This either results in unrest with other people or a surprise sudden firing because the issue was not raised earlier.

Other nations are not so flowery. I went to college with a range of nationalities, and the Germans, Dutch and Eastern Europeans that I studied with were much more direct. To some British people, this directness seemed rude as it lacked the softening that we so determinedly bring into our own interactions, but it did bring much more clarity. As a leader, clarity is key to helping people understand the vision, promoting engagement and ensuring high performance. So, is there a way of bringing light to situations more directly without appearing rude or disengaging people? In this month’s series of blogs, we will examine:

· the importance of front loading a sentence to ensure people understand the motive

· how to raise an issue in four steps to engage people in the process

· the power of and to not negate what has just been said

· the power of listening to understand and not just to have a conversation

Relationship & Intent

In my work with leaders, the most common fear about raising an issue with someone is that they will cause offence which will break down a relationship. Let’s be honest, as human beings, most of us don’t like being told that we have not done so well at something. However, the key to avoiding offence is relationship and understanding the intent behind raising the issue. When we know the person cares for us and they have our best intention at heart, then we are more able to accept feedback. We know that the feedback is being shared to lift us up to better things; to become the best version of ourselves. So, the trick is to let them know those intentions at the start of the sentence.

Calming the Chimp

Steve Peters, in his books ‘Chimp Paradox’ and ‘Path through the Jungle’, compares the emotional centre of our brains to that of a hyperactive chimp. It is there to spot danger and alert us. Words, body language, and facial expressions are all processed to perceive any threat. Depending on the person’s experience, even phrases like, ‘could I have a word?’ can trigger a warning sign to the emotional chimp. Steve Peters explains that the key to calming ‘the chimp’ is to a) recognise the emotion and b) remind them of a time that it has been ok with you or this situation.

Language that we use and scripting can play a huge part to help reduce the signs of threat, and then the conversation is more likely to engage the human, more logical part of the brain rather than the emotional centre. Paul Dix, in his book, ‘When adults change, everything changes’ talks about the power of scripting language that helps reduce the sense of threat. Two key phrases that he suggests, when working with someone who is emotionally charged, are

“I would really like to help you.”

“I can see that this is upsetting you.”

Both of these phrases help the person hear, right at the start, that you are not a threat and that you recognise their emotion. This aligns with Steve Peter’s instructions to recognise emotion and remind the chimp that you are ok.

Front load the sentence

So, imagine taking this into the start of a sentence, before you raise the issue. Now, to be clear, this is not the archetypal ‘plop sandwich’ that many used to propose for giving bad news (of giving something nice before the bad news and then ending on something nice). People see through that and it often ends up feeling inauthentic. Front loading the sentence is about stating your intent at the start and helping them to be receptive to exploring the issue with you. So how about phrases like these ones?

“I am here to help you. I would like you to do well in your role.”

“My role is to help you be the best that you can be.”

If you have had a positive experience before of helping them, you can drop that in too after the front loading.

“Remember when we worked together on improving xxx? I would like to help you develop your practice again.”

Consider how it feels for you if you hear

“I am here to help you. I would like you to do well in your role. Remember when we worked together on improving xxx? I would like to help you develop your practice again.” It is a signal of intent and relationship. The sense of threat drops and you are ready to hear what they have to say and consider it.

It is not hypnotism and so there will still be some people who will be edgy or, due to past experiences that have not gone well, may react poorly, but it increases the chance of engagement. Do remember, though, that the words you use need to be yours; the ones above are just suggestions and should be adapted to suit you, your relationship with the individual, and the situation. It needs to be authentic.

Consider ‘because’

Kerwin Rae, business strategist and coach, in one of his YouTube clips, talks about the power of the word ‘because’. He cites research that tested the impact of using ‘because’ when asking or explaining something. Even if the reason for the ‘because’ is a poor reason, 93% of people still engaged in the request. Putting this simple word in our conversation with the person can, again, add power to what we are asking of them. Consider the impact in our previous sentences.

“I am here to help you. Remember when we worked together on improving xxx? I would like to help you develop your practice again. Because I would like you to do well in your role, I would like to discuss with you an area for development.”

‘Because’ can also be used later in the conversation. But more on that next week as we talk about the 4 steps to raise an issue.

Give it a try

Raising an issue with someone doesn’t have to be dumbed down, but neither does it need to be brutal. How we start the conversation can be crucial to engagement. Give the front load a go and explore the impact it has on you, as well as the person you are working with.

Can we help you?

How do you find confronting issues? We hope this blog has been helpful and if you would like some more targeted support to your leadership and raising issues, then do get in contact with us. We can run group training on this for your leaders or organise one-to-one coaching to help with techniques. Give us a call on 01449 710438 if you would like us to help you explore this and empower you.

Everyday Leader is here to empower, inspire and equip you. If we can help you find a way forward, through coaching, training or consultancy, do let us know. Contact us now:


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