two businessmen in friendly discussion

Words hold implications and meanings that exist outside of their dictionary definitions. Although the words “team member” and “employee” can technically be synonymous, they have different meanings and feelings attached to them.

The way that you discuss people and situations inherently affects how you and others approach and understand what you were talking about. Leaders and team members must consider the effect that their rhetorical choices and communication style will have on others and thus learn how to frame their messaging to achieve their desired results.

Changing the way that a leader communicates can quickly improve their relationships with team members and their leadership abilities. Even switching one word can change the meaning of a sentence and how it is received. Let’s compare the meaning of the phrases “How can I help you?” and “How can I support you?”

Help vs. Support

coworkers having a discussion in the office

The word “help” carries emotional connotations that will color or influence any situation in which it is used. In the modern corporate-office setting, asking a team member, “How can I help you?” or “Do you need help?” can convey an assumption that the team member is incompetent or that you do not trust in their abilities to complete the task. By using the word “help,” the leader conveys to the team member a belief that they are unable to perform the task or finish the project on their own and that the leader feels like they need to step in. Whether the leader intends to communicate this message or not is immaterial; the word “help” does it for them.

Compare these assumptions to the word “support.” Support is associated with foundations, buildings, and working together to achieve something. Despite “help” and “support” being synonymous, the words themselves communicate completely different connotations, meanings, and feelings. When a leader asks, “How can I support you?” they are expressing to their team member that they want to make the project or task easier to bear; they believe in the team member’s abilities but want to be able to assist if they can.

By changing “help” to “support,” the leader transitions away from implying a lack of trust in their team member and their abilities. Instead, their words offer strength and assistance while validating the team member’s ability to complete the task.

More Words to Use and Avoid to Be a Better Leader

Use the person’s name rather than “someone”

  • “Someone” is amorphous. Usually, the word is used regarding things that need to be done or addressed. Rather than being vague, be specific and clearly voice who you want to perform the task.
  • Example: “Someone needs to fix this.” vs. “I will ask Noah to fix this.”

Use “space” rather than “time”

  • Activities and tasks take up more than just the time that it takes to complete them; they take up mental space, physical space, and time to transition between tasks. By replacing “time” with “space,” you acknowledge the mental and physical load that the task requires. Although this won’t work in every instance, it does show consideration for the resources the team member will need to expend (and the abilities required) to complete an assignment.
  • Example: “Do you have time for this 30-minute discovery call?” vs. “Do you have space for this 30-minute discovery call?”

Avoid “just”

two coworkers sitting at a desk discussing

  • The word “just” can suggest disdain or disrespect, as shown in the first example below. It is a term that diminishes the subject and could also be used to express uncertainty or doubt about a situation.
  • Example: “He’s just the assistant.” vs. “He’s the assistant.”
  • Example: “We could just do this.” vs. “We could do this.”

Avoid “right”

  • The word “right” is ambiguous. Even when used to mean “correct,” what is “right” can be different from person to person. Unless you have clearly delineated the singular “right” way to do things, try to use words that are less ambiguous, like “accurate” which denotes numbers or other measurable qualities.
  • Example: “This has to be done right.” vs. “This has to be done accurately.”

Avoid “unacceptable”

  • The word “unacceptable” is also ambiguous. For whom was it unacceptable? What made it unacceptable? Replace “unacceptable” with an explanation: why the outcome or action was unfavorable. This way, the team member can learn and improve.
  • Example: “This program is unacceptable.” vs. “This program is unusable for our clients because you did not follow the formatting guidelines.”

Words have meanings, both overt and implied, and as soon as we speak or write them, they can develop meanings that are beyond our control. By being purposeful with your communication and rhetorical choices, you can ensure that your team members will understand exactly what you are trying to express as well as improve your team’s culture and relationships.

To learn more about strategies for effective and intentional communication, explore our in-person Communication Skills workshop or purchase CMOE’s digital Communication Skills course.

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About the Author
Hannah Sincavage
Hannah joined the CMOE team in 2022 and brings both her unique expertise in writing and her prior teaching experiences to the Design Team and CMOE clients. She earned her Master of Arts in Writing and Rhetoric Studies at the University of Utah. Hannah works with the Design Team to provide innovative learning solutions that meet the needs of each organization.

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