Four Powerful Phrases
Mark DeMoss


I teach my children that words have powers.  "Stupid" and "shut up," for instance, close doors.  "Please" and "thank you" open them.  As my children grow up and move into the world, I'll also teach them a few phrases that, in my experience, can unbolt shut doors, leave open doors ajar, and cut passages where none existed.  For example:

"In my opinion. . ."

My field is public relations and my role is to dispense counsel, but the advice I give often comes down to opinion, and I tell my clients that.  I wish we heard those three words more often from our leaders, but I hope you always hear them from me.

Does saying "in my opinion" show weakness?  On the contrary, in my opinion, those three words signal strength--for what I'm about to say, I take full responsibility.  That shows confidence, and listeners take their cues from the signals we send.  In fact, the more certain I am about something, the more likely I am to preface, or conclude my words with "in my opinion."

"What Do You Think?"

In the greatest business textbook ever written, one proverb says, "Where there is no counsel, the people fall, but in the multitude of counselors there is safety."  The best counsel givers, in other words, are counsel seekers.  

As president of a small, twenty-employee PR firm, my judgment and decisions are colored by the counsel of relevant people--employees, friends, industry peers, my wife--and sometimes counselors less obviously relevant.  Only arrogance would overlook advice because of a person's job title.

In years of work with more than a hundred organizations, I have often seen leaders make major decrees or decisions without the benefit of much more than a counsel of one.  Certainly a leader is free to override advice--ultimately he or she is left with final judgment--but to form that judgment without seeking information, news, and opinions, and without listening to the dissenting side. . . well, the wisdom of one is not as wise as it could be.

"Let Me Ask You a Question"

"The stupidity of people comes from having an answer to everything.  The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything."  In an interview on his writing, award-winning Czechoslovakian author Milan Kundera parted the curtain on his technique and offered a tip to everyone who wants the full story:  he asks questions.  The writer continued, "It seems to me that all over the world people nowadays prefer to judge rather than to understand, to answer rather than to ask, so that the voice of the novel can hardly be heard over the noisy foolishness of human certainties."

Someone else put it this way:  knowledge has right answers; wisdom has right questions.  So let me ask you something:  do you employ the power of a question?

Humanly speaking, it is almost impossible to disregard a good question.  Just the phrase "Let me ask you. . ." arrests attention.  Try it in your next meeting.  Used wisely (only you know if you're using it to manipulate), a question is your passage to new information, more time to think, and the regard of the people you're talking to.  In our culture, questions show interest; they flatter.  As a business leader, I also observe that good questions sharpen my employees' own thinking, and we're all better for it.

"I Don't Know"

When Billy Graham turned seventy, a Newsweek interviewer asked him why, given his mighty public influence, he never ran for political office.  Mr. Graham told the reporter he wasn't smart enough.  Away from headlines, a brilliant attorney acknowledged that he avoided a certain branch of law because he had failed at it miserably.  Unfortunately, though, these men are the exceptions.

Great men and women, accomplished artists, gifted leaders, I observe, who are confident about their strengths are equally comfortable admitting their weaknesses.  In fact, show me an expert willing to say, "I don't know," and I'll show you a constituency who trusts what he or she does know.

I am not advocating a string of shrugs, needless ignorance, or lack of preparation.  But I do suggest that, along with the phrases "In my opinion," "What do you think?" and "Let me ask you a question," is the confidence-inspiring habit of refusing to blow smoke.  I would even suggest that people who say "I don't know" usually know more than it might appear, while those who don't ever acknowledge it almost certainly know less.

One of the best things leaders can do for their children, spouses, employees, clients, and anyone else is to make it acceptable not to know.  In an atmosphere of honest questioning, people are more likely to collaborate--to shoot out suggestions, think out loud, and discover information no single know-it-all could have developed alone.

Small things often make the biggest impact--thinking like a customer, admitting to not knowing everything, asking for help.  Just take a look around then join the minority who understand and practice these simple principles.

The Little Red Book of Wisdom
offers time-tested principles for professional and personal fulfillment.
Mark DeMoss gathers insights for
living wisely from history, Scripture,
and a lifetime of listening.  The result
is a handy, accessible book that gives readers a new way to enjoy lasting
success in the work world and beyond.  Topics include finding and keeping
your focus in life, building a winning corporate culture, and setting aside
time for good thinking.


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