When used incorrectly, communication can build a barrier between people in the workplace. Time is often wasted trying to clarify and reiterate information. Meanwhile, employees become frustrated and disengaged due to lack of understanding. People depend on leaders to deliver clear, effective messages that inspire a vision and drive us to act. We accomplish this by practicing the use of key words at key times to increase engagement and understanding.


Communication is foundational to our interactions with one another. Without effective communication, our relationships will begin to deteriorate. We use key words at key times to intentionally connect the dots for people. This creates a more positive relationship and reduces anxiety for the receiver, which generates trust. Key words help to strengthen relationships with teams, employees, colleagues, friends and family. When we consistently communicate messages with key words in mind, we build the alignment necessary to accelerate our organization’s performance.


Using key words at key times means we say the right thing, to the right person, at the right time, and in the right way. We are carefully selecting words and phrases that assist us in achieving our purpose. These specific words or phrases help us communicate important information in a way that is designed for the audience and focused on the outcome. For example:


If you are trying to… You might say…
Support. Start with something positive. What does your leader do well? Tell them. I can see how frustrated you are.
I care about your experience as a colleague.
It sounds like you are very upset.
You seem to be feeling so__________.
Listen and question without agreeing, disagreeing or taking sides. Who did you take your concern to?
Am I the first person you’ve talked to?
What would you like to see happen?
What resolution are you seeking?
How can I help you in this situation?
Apologize. I am sorry.
We are sorry.
I apologize for ___________.
I am sorry that you felt ________ when we ________.
Commit to something. Let me help you practice that tough conversation.
I am committing to resolving this situation.
I want you to know that we are committed to service excellence and so__________.
Hand-over a situation or customer. Can I walk you to the classroom, where I know you’ll want to talk directly to the teacher?
I am going to connect you with ______, who is ____________ (positive description).
I know that ________ would want to know ________. How can I help you start that conversation?


Leaders can repeat the following steps to create messages that appeal to the listeners:

  1. Determine the outcome you want to achieve and the most important information listeners will need to know.
  2. Consider the best language to use to achieve the desired outcome. What word choices may be better than others? What messages may have a negative connotation? How can we avoid those?
  3. Follow the why-what-how communication sequence. Always start by explaining why this information is important to the audience.
  4. Plan to give listeners an opportunity to ask questions and demonstrate the information was understood as intended.


We use key words during all communication situations — meetings, emails, one-on-one connections, social media. Leaders can use key words to respond to a complaint about a colleague or a decision or to prevent rumors and speculation from spreading.

Here are five opportunities for leaders to practice using Key Words at Key Times:

  • As we make a decision: People have an easier time trusting and supporting decisions when communication about them is clear and transparent. The use of key words to communicate our decision-making process builds trust and confidence in our ability to lead the situation.
  • When internal or external forces create disruption or uncertainty: People are looking to their leaders for strength, stability and understanding in times like these.
  • If resiliency is needed: During times of high anxiety or confusion, thoughtfully crafting key words at key times can help align clear and specific communication.
  • While rolling out results to employees, communities or other stakeholders: Leaders plan key messages to share results with teams in a way that focuses on improvement and why change is needed.
  • When we want to create an impact: A small shift in language can have a vastly different outcome in the power behind the message.


The difference between confusion and clarity is good communication. It’s critical for leaders to develop messages that are well-written, build trust and reduce anxiety. As leaders, we will never have all of the answers. However, we can be most impactful by focusing on what is highly important for our teams. Effective communicators connect the dots for others in a way that enhances understanding and leads us to the desired outcome. If you want to communicate with greater clarity, download our Leveraging the Execution Triangle toolkit, featuring three key principles and seven tools to assist you in developing and deploying your message.

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