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Winning With People Lesson #7: Say the Right Words at the Right Time

people development Oct 07, 2019

Can you think of a time where someone said the right thing to you, at exactly the right time? I remember in my first month as a teacher at Charter Day School I was pulled into a room by a group of students because their teacher was unresponsive. I grabbed a teammate and we immediately started CPR but we were not able to resuscitate her. She had died instantly from an aneurysm. I didn’t know her at all, but for the next month I couldn’t get that feeling, that image, out of my head. Our Superintendent wanted to ensure that every employee on campus had CPR training just in case this situation occurred again. When the trainer came that day I spoke to him about how I wasn’t able to save her. He looked at me and said in a  short, almost crass tone, “She was already dead.” I gave him a confused look. He continued, “The only reason you started CPR is because she was dead. Be proud of the fact that you tried. Most people don’t.” Those words immediately snapped me out of my funk and gave me a whole new perspective on the situation. There is great value in what we say and when we say it. You can bet everything you have ever said to anyone fall in one of these four categories: 

  • The wrong words said at the wrong time discourage me. 
  • The wrong words said at the right time frustrate me. 
  • The right words said at the wrong time confuse me. 
  • The right words said at the right time encourage me. 

As a school leader, consultant, spouse and father I know I haven’t handle many situations correctly with my words. John Maxwell notes, “Sometimes, the best thing we can do for someone else is to hold our tongue” (p. 48). We should strive “not to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment,” said British journalist George Sala. 

When it is time to speak up, how can you best encourage others using the right words at the right time? John Maxwell shares these thoughts:

 Be Sensitive to Time and Place: The first key to saying the right thing at the right time paying attention to the context. If you can learn to be sensitive to your setting, you’ve won half the battle in saying the words at the right time. 

 Say It From the Heart: It’s not just what you say and when you say it: it is also how you say it. Anytime someone asks you how you look or about a great idea they have, they are not listening for your words as they are your heart.  Professor Albert Mehrabian of the University of California in Los Angeles (1970) studies suggested that we overwhelmingly deduce our feelings, attitudes, and beliefs about what someone says not by the actual words spoken. He concluded, “The non-verbal elements are particularly important for communicating feelings and attitude, especially when they are incongruent: if words and body language disagree, one tends to believe the body language.” People can tell whether words are hollow by what they hear and what they see. 

Recognize the Power of the Right Words at the Right Time: Saying the right words at the right time can do more than just make the person feel good in the moment. It can have an impact that is positive and lasting. I am not sure what experience you had growing up. Perhaps you grew up in an environment that was led by parents and teachers who understood the power of encouragement. Whether or not you received it then, you can give it now. Look for opportunities to uplift others with your words. It just might change their lives. 

 To apply John Maxwell’s teaching into your own life…

 Forget about:  What you want to say and focus on what the other person needs to hear. 

Ask: What would I want to hear if I was in this person’s shoes?

Do it: Change someone’s day - or maybe invite his entire life-by saying the right words at the right time. From the heart. 

Remember: “Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a word spoken in the right circumstances.” 

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