Correct But Not Right

Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools because they have to say something.
Plato

There is a cliche statement that I have grown to dislike over the years: It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.

This statement leads you to believe that what you say does not matter as much as how you say it. While the way we deliver a message from a place of care and concern is vital, the “what” of your message also matters. I want to take some time to think about the ideas that come from this statement (that we have all heard, and have potentially said, numerous times in our lives).

You can look at this statement from different angles; lets first think about the statement as it is — “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it”. This implies that the content of your message is not important. All that matters is that the delivery of the message leaves an impact on the audience it was intended for. This means there is not a need to create an intelligent, well-thought-out response… because “it is only about how you say it”. There is obviously fault in this logic. What you say does matter- it always matters. As educators and leaders, the messages we deliver are important. What we say needs to be purposeful. Those who fly through their work without putting much thought into their decisions falter quickly and rarely build the culture needed to improve our schools. When the message you are delivering is poor, yet delivered in a positive way, you may create happy employees; however, there is not much chance for growth unless people choose to do so themselves. People may really like working for you in this scenario, but nothing will ever seem to improve. While a happy teacher is a better teacher, a happy teacher does not always reach their maximum potential.

Next let’s examine the opposite. What you say is necessary for the growth of the people you are leading, but you deliver the message in such a way that outcomes are all that matter, not the people making the change. This creates an environment and culture where work is a grind. People fall into a mode of compliance. The work is getting done, but no one is pushing themselves or being innovative. The work that is being asked of teachers is the necessary work, but there is just no enthusiasm. Students can feel the angst in this environment. People are complacent because they want to get it “right” everytime. Getting it “right” is what gets rewarded and getting it “right” is safe in this type of environment. People in this type of culture know there is no concern for anything but the outcomes we want. While this environment can get results and improve test scores, it is not sustainable. People are emotional creatures, and they need an emotional connection to their work to perform at a high level. Similar to my last post, you cannot just logic someone into change. It is not just about what you say; how you say it is also a paramount part of making a positive impact on the culture and the people you are leading.

There is a third alternative where the content of the message is poor and disorganized coupled with a questionable delivery method. It is not difficult to see the error in this way, so I am not going to spend any more time discussing.

The final way of looking at this, I have found, holds the most truth. What you say matters; how you say it matters. The messages you deliver are important. Your responses to situations need to be purposeful and intentional, not haphazard and impulsive. However, a well-thought-out intellectual response is not enough. I am sure we all know people who are very intelligent, but they cannot lead people because their emotional intelligence is low. True leaders take time to make very intentional decisions that impact outcomes, but they also do so in a way that values the people they are leading first and foremost. Change, and pushing people to be their best, is a delicate process. It must be met with an intentional message that comes from a place of deep concern for people. This is how you make what you say and how you say it matter.

A note before I end this post: We need to be cognizant of the the fact that sometimes it’s not what you say or how you say it if the person is not in a place to be receptive to what have to say in the first place. Sometimes people just need you to listen; not everything warrants a response. I have found that rarely does having an immediate opinion benefit the situation or the person you are speaking with. Before you worry about what you are going to say, or how you will say it, focus on what the person needs most in the situation. If it is a response, then pay attention to what comes out of your mouth and how that message is being delivered. If no response is needed, become an expert at listening.

What you say matters: how you say it matters.

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