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Julie Brush, Solutus founding partner. Julie Brush, Solutus founding partner.

A beautiful poem. An inspiring speech. A hurtful rant. A bumbling negotiation. A demand for more money.

Our thoughts and emotions are the genesis, but it is the words that give them form and expression. And influence reactions with vastly different outcomes depending on how carefully … or carelessly they are used.

Lawyers are in the business of words. Their livelihoods depend on word nuances so there is an appreciation for their impact and influence over desired outcomes. But when it comes to their own careers, the importance of words often gets lost in translation and the results can be costly. How costly?

It can mean the difference between: securing a better title/raise … and being stuck for another year … or two … or five; getting the job and getting rejected; a good review and one that is ho hum; credibility and dismissal; a better offer and a lower benchmark; being recognized and being forgotten; being liked and being despised … and countless other scenarios. In fact, there are consequences (macro and micro alike) for every interaction we have with another individual. So the professional stakes are high.

Every day I counsel lawyers on how to get what they want and need. Whether it’s more money, a better title, more responsibility, acing an interview, asking for help, dealing with the board or managing a difficult colleague etc. In each instance I start the conversation with the same statement of fact:

“A professional can express any feeling, make any request, and assert any opinion, but it’s how that message is executed—with words and tone—that can create vastly different results. So choose every word wisely.” 

To demonstrate this point, I’ve included two examples below. Each message has the same ask (more money), but uses different words to try to achieve its goal. Do you think they are equally effective?

Example No. 1: Negotiating an Offer

Message A

Hi Rob, I spoke with HR about the offer today and the base salary is much lower than I expected. It doesn’t make any sense for me to leave my current job for less than $X. I’m also talking to several other companies who are offering more money and are interested in me. So if you can’t get to that number, I’ll have to pass.

Message B

No message because no negotiation. The candidate took the first offer presented and did not negotiate because s/he was too worried that the offer would be pulled or that asking for more money would create too much conflict, which s/he wanted to avoid.

Message C

Hi Rob, thank you so much for the offer. I’m really excited about it and can’t wait to join the team. I wanted to know if there was any way to have a little more on the base salary. I don’t want to come off as greedy or put you in a bad spot so no worries if it’s a problem.

Message D

Hi Rob, first I’d like to thank you for the offer. I’m very excited about the opportunity and look forward to the possibility of working with you and your team. I think this could be a great fit. I had a nice conversation with HR and many of the offer terms are great. However, the base salary is somewhat lower than I had hoped. My current compensation is $Y and given my years of solid [privacy/product/sales/corporate] experience at top companies, I believe a fair reflection of the value I would add to the department and the organization is $Z. I’ve also done some benchmarking and $Z falls roughly in the middle of what lawyers with my background and seniority are being paid. So I’d like to know whether there’s a little flexibility to increase the base salary to $Z. If so, I can sign the offer letter today and start in two weeks. [Silence]

Example No. 2: Asking for a Raise

Message A

Sarah, I wanted to talk to you about my compensation. I’ve talked to my friends at other companies and my compensation is too low. There are also other people in the department who aren’t contributing as much as I am, but are making more money. I don’t think this is fair so I’d like to request a raise to $X.

Message B

No raise asked for. The employee wasn’t sure of the best way to ask and didn’t think s/he would receive more money anyway. So s/he avoided the situation altogether.

Message C

Sarah, thanks for taking the time to discuss my compensation—I really appreciate it. I’ve worked very hard this year and have accomplished a lot. A few things I’m particularly proud of include implementing a new contracts management system that has saved the company roughly $300,000, being the lawyer on point that helped sales close the biggest deal in company history; and hiring two lawyers for the department who are both succeeding. I’ve included these accomplishments on this list of what I have achieved in 2016 [give boss the list]. My current compensation is $185k so I would like to request a salary increase to $200k. I’m not seeking to be an outlier in the organization, but I do believe this is a fair number given my contributions this past year and I hope you agree. [Silence]

In each of these messages, not only is the professional’s “ask” at stake, but the words used also impact his/her reputation, level of respect received and quality of relationship going forward with the other person. 

So with a greater appreciation for the impact of words, how does a professional enhance his/her skill of using the right words to maximize career wants and needs? Here are a few suggestions:

Sloooooow Down. We’re all moving at the speed of light. Bouncing from this to that to this again—in a hurry with a zillion tasks to complete before dinner. So managing to “done” is a common activity. This bleeds into important matters as well and can lead to careless communication. Slowing down will allow you to be more thoughtful and attentive to what you say and how you say it.

Think. We’ve all said stupid things that have gotten us into warm or hot water because we just didn’t think. This goes hand in hand with slowing down. By giving yourself the time, you’ll switch off autopilot and create the brain space to reflect and apply the right judgment when using your words.

Know What You Want to Accomplish. Whatever the communication (asking for a raise, giving a speech, firing an employee, etc.), know what you want to accomplish out of the communication and what supporting elements will help you achieve it. This will provide clarity and serve as the framework for your narrative.

Identify Your Feelings. Fear, anger, ego, cockiness, low self-esteem, laziness and apathy. These are common saboteurs of one’s ability to use words wisely. And they are powerful. So be aware of how you’re feeling and how those feelings may be hindering you.

Don’t Wing It. I’ve never been a fan of “winging” anything. Excellence is in the details and the nuances so if you want to be excellent and maximize your career success, you have to prepare and practice every step of the way.

Write It Down. Thoughts look different when they are in black and white. So it’s easier to choose the right words … for the right situation when you write them down. This forces you to (1) slow down (2) think and (3) prepare. Revisit a few times with a fresh pair of eyes until the words are just right.

Practice. The old adage “practice makes perfect” is true. Practice your narrative out loud to ensure that you’re effective and calmer come game time. You also need to hear and feel what you are saying so you can assess your comfort level with your delivery and tweak accordingly.

Deliver With Confidence. You’ve done the work. You know what you want and know what to say. The words are critical, but the delivery brings it home. So be confident, keep your composure, manage your emotions and know when to stop talking. And if you’re a wreck inside? Fake it.

Words matter. And if you are a professional who cares about career and personal success, you must appreciate the power of words—their benefits and their dangers. Use them strategically, strive to improve and always remember…

A professional can express any feeling, make any request, and assert any opinion, but it’s how that message is executed—with words and tone—that can create vastly different results. So choose every word wisely.

Julie Brush is the founder and author of The Lawyer Whisperer (www.thelawyerwhisperer.com), a career advice column for legal professionals, also found on LinkedIn. She is co-founder of Solutus Legal Search, a legal search/consulting boutique firm, serving as a strategic adviser to lawyers, law firms and corporations.

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