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How Can You Make Your Words Work? 10 Tips to Improve the Clarity of Your Conversations

Words all by themselves don’t create anything. But the words you choose and how you put them together will influence the thinking, feelings, and actions of others. In short, your language will help to achieve the results you want, improve the quality of your relationships, and create the respect that may be lacking. I was fascinated years ago to learn that the Aramaic phrase “abracadabra,” so frequently used by magicians, means “I create as I speak.” This left me wondering what I was creating.

I first started to notice the results that my words were creating when instructing my two young sons about the care of our lawn. I noticed that when I used the sentence, “If you cut the lawn by 2:00 p.m., we will go to the movies,” they never finished cutting the lawn by 2 p.m. However, if I said, “When the lawn is done by 2 p.m., we will go to the movies,” then the task was almost always completed. I started to notice that many words have an assumption behind them that impacts performance. For example, “if” seems to project a sense of doubt; whereas, “when” seems to project expectation and completion. Although both words describe a positive consequence for performance, I always achieved a far superior result “when” I clarified the consequences in this manner.

 As an attorney, I was frequently asked to “interrogate” a witness as opposed to “interview” a witness. “Interrogate” has the connotation that the witness is guilty, and, if asked the right questions, might be manipulated into admitting guilt. An “interview” describes more of an exchange of ideas, an exploration of perspectives, and a sense of mutual willingness to openly share or talk about an issue. Stopping to think about the words you use and how you use them will help you to improve the outcome of your conversations as well as your professional image.  

Here are a few word tips that will help to achieve clarity and specificity in your messaging.

1.     Speak to contribute something worthwhile. There seems to be more and more talk in the media, in the meeting room, and in the classroom where the message is vague and left to the listeners’ interpretation. If I find myself asking, “Why are they telling me this?" or “What did they mean by that?", then I know that the volume of words is adding little if anything to the conversation. If the person speaking is vague and seems to be rambling in no particular direction without a specific context or clear meaning, we simply tune them out. When this happens repeatedly, we usually just shut down before that person begins speaking.  Identify the intent of your message and then let that drive what you want to say and how you say it. Deliver your message clearly and succinctly.

2.     Talk less and listen more. Some people think out loud, others like to hear themselves talk, and others are uncomfortable with silence, so they fill the air with words. Listening to what others have to say, asking clarifying questions, and inviting them to contribute to the conversation will create respect while enhancing your understanding of their perspective. Share your perspective, but then listen twice as much as you talk.

3.     Use “I” statements. When we become frustrated, we often begin a sentence with “you.” Beginning with “you” can come off as an accusation and will put people on the defensive. Notice the difference between, “You don’t know what you are doing,” versus, “I wonder if you know what you are doing.” The use of “I” statements at the beginning of a sentence puts the focus on you, rather than them and will help defuse a potentially defensive response.

4.     Invite reflection with questions. Describing the situation through the use of questions initiates thinking while painting a picture that creates empathy in your listener. For example, “What do you imagine the client will think when we don’t meet their deadline today?” or “What kinds of feelings will they have about doing business with us going forward?”

So why do this?

People tend to respond better to self-discovery than you telling them something. For example, “How do you think our clients will feel when we don’t meet the deadline today?” “What should we do to help mitigate the damage?” as opposed to, “Our clients will be really upset you didn’t meet their deadline today.  What are you going to do about it?” People will relate more to the images and the feelings that your questions create than you telling them how badly they performed.

5.     Avoid redundancies and qualifiers. Avoid redundancies and qualifiers to deliver a more powerful and concise message.  People often use redundancies and qualifiers to soften their message.  For example, “I personally feel,”  “I, myself, think that …,” or “That’s just what I think,” or, “I really didn’t have time to think this through first, but …” Using these kinds of phrases in your conversations will water down or possibly confuse your message. Be concise and clear in delivering your message.  

6.     Ask Don’t Tell. Once, I became frustrated with a client who wasn’t keeping their commitments. I finally sent an email that said, “I need the following….” I received feedback that making such a demand was very demeaning to the individual. Using a question format to make a request such as “Could you help me by …?” is much more respectful than “I need….”

7.     Stop setups. Have you ever had someone say to you, “No offense…” or, “I don’t mean to offend you, but…?” Then what follows is offensive. Setting up a message or conversation negatively in this fashion does more to shut the person down than to increase engagement. You’ll also want to notice when people say, “I have an observation to share.” When you hear this, you will usually hear anything but an observation of the facts. More likely you will hear a statement of judgment, opinion, or interpretation without any factual support.

8.     Eliminate vague words or phrases, slang, or colloquialisms. The first time I heard my teenage son say, “That was sick!” made me wonder who was sick and what he was talking about. Also, phrases like “perfect”, “awesome”, “bandwidth,” “skin in the game”, “my bad”, or “out of the box” may not accurately describe what you mean and are subject to misinterpretation.

9.     Lose overused words. Many words like “scalable”, “leverage”, “synergy”, “strategic”, or “thought leadership” are so overused and broad that no one really knows what you mean when you use them. Unfortunately, people won’t ask you what you mean because everyone thinks they know what these words mean or they don’t want to run the risk of looking stupid for asking. Being specific will eliminate any doubt about what you mean.

10.  Avoid profanity. Someone once said that profanity was the attempt of a feeble mind to express itself forcefully. You need to identify your audience and the intent of your message. Using four letter expletives can be highly offensive and inappropriate to some people, may damage your image, and dilute the power of your message. Using such language also may cause many people to shut down and become defensive which means that they may not hear or understand what you are saying. 


Notice that each of these tips requires some thought and preparation on your part. Obviously, you can’t or won’t want to stop and think about every message you convey. However, if the message is an important one or if it has the potential to turn into a difficult conversation, then you might want to consider the context of your message which we discussed last week and think about your wording. Being deliberate and intentional about the message you want to deliver will insure your message has an impact and that you are clearly understood. After all, you want to say what you mean, and mean what you say.  

What have you learned about the words you use in conversation? Leave us a comment!


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Do Words Really Matter? Six Questions to Improve the Power of Your Message

Recently my son decided that he wanted to change a class in his junior high schedule. My wife and son went to pay a visit to the school counselor. During the meeting, the counselor asked him why he wanted to change to a different science teacher. He said, “Well, most of the time I have a difficult time focusing, which makes the teacher really hard to understand.” To this the counselor replied, “What you really mean is that your teacher is boring and you can’t stay awake. Is that right?” He responded, “Well I didn’t say exactly that.” Unfortunately for him, she did not allow him to change teachers.

When my wife told me this story, I thought that perhaps we were doing something right, and I was impressed that he had enough presence of mind to think about how to frame a message in a way that was more respectful and that might lead to a positive outcome.

Consider the power of words in your message. Dr. Albert Mehrabian taught that when talking about your feelings or attitudes, only 7 % of your message comes from the words that you use. He also proposed that your tone accounts for 38% and body language or nonverbal behavior accounts for the remaining 55% of meaning in your message.

However, it would be a broad generalization to assume that all messages would be attributable to the same percentages. Once someone asked me, “How do you know when your message was absolutely and perfectly clear?” To which I responded, “When I am angry.”  My confidence in my response is based on the perfect alignment of my words, feelings, and actions when that emotion is high. Unfortunately, speaking to people in a state of high or “hot” emotion does not create a rational conversation, nor can we trust the accuracy of what the other person is hearing or what they will say. When we are delivering a message, we often fail to take into account the context in which that message is being received.

Words are powerful tools for inspiring, uplifting, enlightening, informing, motivating, and describing any number of situations. One of the most powerful functions of words is the picture or context that they create for the listener. For example, if you had heard that a certain person whom you had never met was self-centered, when you finally did meet that person, you would likely see everything that he or she did as evidence of their self-centeredness. Unless you consciously assessed your own interpretations or judgments of that individual's behavior, you would probably never revise your opinion of that character trait. Here is an example of this principle in action: Do you remember when President Bill Clinton told the public emphatically that he "did not have sex with that woman"? A psychologist once told me that no matter what evidence was offered later, a large number of Americans refused to believe anything contrary to what they initially thought of his statement.

If you want the message that you deliver to have a positive impact, ask yourself the following questions that will help you consider the context of the message and the person to whom you are speaking:

What is the topic to be discussed?

Obviously, the best way to deliver your message depends upon the topic. Is this a search for understanding? Do you need to provide constructive or negative feedback? Are you simply looking for more information on an issue? Is this a very sensitive subject with legal ramifications that need to be discussed? Be clear about the topic and determine the best way to approach the message you want to deliver.

What is the purpose of the conversation?

Specifically identifying your purpose allows you to pinpoint what you would like the person to do. If you don’t know what you want to accomplish, you likely won't be satisfied with what you achieve. You have to know what end result you are aiming for if you expect to communicate clearly.  

Who is this person?

What do you know about the person in the context of the subject to be discussed? Do they listen and ask clarifying questions? Do they become emotional or upset when their performance is called into question? Do you know how to defuse strong emotional reactions? Does this person value facts and data, or do they think more in terms of relationships with others? Does this person appreciate candor and getting to the point right away, or will you need to soften your approach? What position do they hold? Understanding who the person is and how they have responded to similar conversations in the past will help you to craft a message that they will hear.

What is the current status of your relationship?

You might even ask yourself how much trust currently exists in your relationship with them, perhaps on a scale of 1 to 10. In situations where you have a strong or positive relationship one in which the person is confident that you care about them both as a person and a professional, you can deliver a strong message, and they are less likely to take what you have to say personally. Realize, however, that many people simply take everything personally, simply as a matter of their style. But individual style notwithstanding, consider the strength of your relationship as you plan how best to deliver your message.

What judgments do you hold or what assumptions are you making?

Before holding any difficult conversation, it is important for you to surface and assess the judgments or assumptions that you hold about the person. For example, if you think that a person is a “jerk,” you are likely to treat them in such a way that your behavior will elicit their “jerkiness.” You might be surprised to know that we often influence people to show up in a certain way simply by the way we treat them. Identify your negative thinking and suspend it to make your conversation be more successful.

What are the data in the current situation?   

Your thinking is based on the data, observation, or evidence that you have experienced. Once you have surfaced your thinking, look for evidence that supports your thinking. For example, if you repeatedly accuse a person of being lazy, but you cannot identify any data that would logically lead you to that conclusion, then you re-evaluate the conversation that you need to hold. After all, the data becomes the justification for what the person needs to change. If you can’t point to a specific behavior that you want them to improve, then they will not know what to change.  

What is your plan for improving the situation?

It is always best if the person comes up with their own plan for improving or changing a current situation that is not working. Assist them in doing this by asking them what they did, what they might do differently going forward, or where they are stuck in the process of trying to identify a viable solution. If they struggle to identify a plan, you want to be prepared by taking a moment prior to the conversation to identify a possible plan of attack. That way you can offer suggestions to help them create a plan that will work for them and you.


These questions should help you consider the words that you will use as you craft your message in preparation for the difficult conversation that you need to hold. Obviously, not all conversations are difficult, but if the potential is there for the conversation to go awry, you need to slow down, reflect on these questions, and identify the best way to deliver the message you really want to give. Taking a moment to do so will improve the message that you deliver and the results you achieve.

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How Can You Increase Your Emotional Intelligence?

Everyone has had to deal with a difficult challenge, the poor performance of others, or something that didn’t go as planned. When such a situation occurs, we may begin to experience an emotional reaction. The question we must then answer is, “Do we manage our emotions or do they manage us?”

Emotional Intelligence (EQ) deals with an individual’s ability to recognize the presence of a negative or “hot” emotional reaction in himself or herself, or in another person. This type of intelligence also encompasses the ability to manage those emotional situations in a way that enhances respect, builds relationships, and achieves results.

Recently I was invited to present at a conference. When I arrived at the venue, the first thing I did was to visit the conference bookstore. I wanted to be sure they had a number of my books on hand for the book signing that was scheduled after my presentation. I was shocked to discover that for the second year in a row, they failed to order my books! I was livid. I took a deep breath and left the bookstore, fearing I might say something I would regret later. Then the real work began. Unmistakably, I experienced a negative emotional reaction, and I was determined to surface the thinking behind my reaction, thus dispelling my current energy and feelings about the situation. This was extremely important to me because I did not want to speak from a place of anger or frustration when I delivered my presentation the next morning.

Emotional Intelligence is an important aspect of leading effectively and building interpersonal relationships. In fact, researchers studying emotional intelligence have identified that 58 percent of an individual’s successful performance in all types of jobs is attributed to emotional intelligence.[1] What, then, must we do to become more emotionally intelligent? One way is to learn to recognize and control our own emotional reactions.

Here are a number of tips that will help you manage your feelings more effectively:

Identify your emotions. Naturally, people cannot help but make observations about any situation in which they find themselves. What we observe, however, is filtered through the lens of our past experiences. Because of our filtering, we simply can’t see events entirely clearly for what they are, so we see those events more as a reflection of what we are. We register the data, then make some interpretation or judgment about the data based on our experience. It is our thinking that in turn drives what we feel, say, and do in response.

The first step in becoming more emotionally intelligent is to notice when your feelings start to well up. Increasing your emotional awareness will allow you to be more in control of the situation.

Surface your thinking. Every emotion is preceded by a thought. Because emotional intensity can be overwhelming in the moment, thoughts are often difficult to identify.

In order to surface your thinking, try finishing this sentence, “I’m angry because ….” Finishing this sentence as many times as you can, will allow you to identify the thinking that is floating around in your subconscious and often goes unidentified. I like to write down my thinking so that I can examine and reflect upon the accuracy of my thoughts.

After my experience in the conference bookstore, I did this exercise to surface my thinking. When I finished this sentence stem, these are the kinds of issues that showed up:

               “I’m angry because …”

                              …I don’t have any books to sign.

                              …I will look unprofessional.

                              …I am tired of working with people who are unreliable.

                              …I don’t have the time to visit a number of bookstores to purchase books for tomorrow.

                             …I need to spend my time preparing instead of looking for books.

The more time you take to identify your thinking, the more complete picture you will gain of what is driving your feelings.

► Identify your values. Your values are what are most important to you. I like to define a negative emotional reaction as the symbol of a violated value. When I look over the sentence stems I finished, I begin to recognize that my values include my image, professionalism, reliability, use of time, and preparation. When you are able to identify your values, you can more objectively assess whether those values are actually being violated or not, or perhaps why you are perceiving that they are being threatened.

Ask questions. Whether you ask questions of yourself or of another person, the simple process of answering questions will allow emotional intensity to subside. To answer questions, the brain has to vacate its emotional center, which also serves as the protective-reactive mechanism. To come up with answers, the individual has to tap into the higher-functioning regions of the brain, which are more logical and rational. When others are able to answer your questions, their emotional state diminishes.

Breathe deliberately. Often when we become emotional, we quit breathing normally, and begin to breathe more shallowly and quickly. When this happens, the brain shuts down our logical-rational thinking functions to prepare us for a fight or flight response. Slower, more deliberate breathing helps the brain maintain cognitive functioning, which also supports our rationality.


Change your movements. You can change or lessen your emotional intensity by physically moving. In fact, research by Amy Cuddy at Harvard University suggests that striking a number of different “power poses”—positioning your body in a way that expresses confidence and control—helps you become more assertive, optimistic, and more confident in stressful situations.[1] “Power posing” prior to holding a conversation that you anticipate might end up being highly emotional is a great way to prepare yourself to be more in control of the situation than you might otherwise be.

Change your words. Using” angry” words in a heated situation tends to intensify the emotion that you are experiencing, while positive words have the opposite effect and tend to calm the emotion. Notice the difference in these two phrases: “That makes me livid!” versus “That makes me curious.”

Because the brain attaches meaning to the words we use, using neutral or positive words deliberately in a heated situation will change the emotional intensity.

To use this strategy effectively, you will need to take three steps: first, listen to yourself and identify the angry or negative words you are using. Second, identify a number of positive word substitutions. Finally, deliberately use the positive words you have selected. You may end up laughing at yourself when you use the positive words but you will definitely feel your emotions shift.

Everyone has feelings. Sometimes our feelings get in the way when we need to work effectively with others. Learning to identify your emotions, the thinking behind them, and the values that they represent will help you understand yourself and others. By asking questions, slowing your breathing, changing your movements and your words, you can learn to manage your feelings and help to defuse the negative reactions of yourself and others.

Once you get past the emotions to the thinking that is driving them, you can effectively solve the challenges and problems you are facing. I used a number of these skills to defuse my feelings at the conference so that I could speak calmly and professionally to a large audience the next morning, and the strategies worked. Developing emotional intelligence is critical as you work with others to achieve what you really want.


1 Bradberry, Travis, PhD and Jean Greaves, PhD, Emotional Intelligence 2.0, San Diego: Talent Smart: 2009, 20.

[1] 2 Amy Cuddy, “Your Body Language Changes Who You Are.” TED Talks, October 1, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ks-_Mh1QhMc.




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