Using collaborative language is essential in times of crisis

Language choice is especially critical when we’re all physically distant.

Using collaborative language is essential in times of crisis
[Photo: Rawpixel]

As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, the need for all of us to support each other has never been clearer—whether you’re a corporate CEO working through the challenges of sustaining your business, a team leader supporting far-flung and anxious team members, or an individual applying for a job in a difficult marketplace.


While there is no magic formula for showing concern for others, one effective way is to use language that has a collaborative tone, especially as we are physically distant.

There are four ways you can build this rapport just through your word choice:

1. Avoid too many “I” statements

Using the first person in our speech has traditionally been a sign of confidence, but today overusing it or using it in a self-centered way can reflect especially poorly in this challenging climate.

While it’s still important to project confidence with expressions such as “I believe,” leadership today is more group-focused than it once was. If “leaders eat last,” as Simon Sinek argues in his book by that name, then anyone who wants to come across with leadership qualities avoids overuse of “I” statements.

In fact, according to research, published in the Harvard Business Review, “I” statements are used much more often by those with lower status than by those of higher rank. Those who feel like leaders and act like leaders don’t need to call attention to themselves all the time.

When should you use the word “I?” Use it when you want to express a connection with others. For example, couple it with a quality such as empathy. (“I know how you must feel.”) Or use it when you want to show confidence in others. (“I know we will get through this ordeal, as we always have.”) But make sure these statements reach out to others, rather than being self-centered.


And in a job interview, use the first person to talk about your conviction about the company you’re interviewing with. (“I am excited about this opportunity.”) Avoid “I” that smacks of self-absorption. (“I did this” or “I did that.”)

2. Use the language of “we”

“We” is very much a part of the leader’s lexicon, so use it to bring a collaborative tone to your speech.

As a subscriber to The Wall Street Journal I received a letter from the editor, Matt Murray, about the coronavirus. In his short but eloquent letter he used “I” once and “we” six times: “We aim,” “we’re listening,” “we know,” “we want to share,” “we know [about the virus], and “we are deeply grateful for your support.” His language captured the tone of this piece in which he referenced “the journalists of The Wall Street Journal” in the opening of his letter.

Using “we” will make you sound collaborative. Lace your meeting remarks with “we” and similar words, such as “everyone” and “each other,” especially in this environment where people are feeling vulnerable and dislocated. Show those you work with that everyone matters. Tom Hanks, in self-isolation in Australia, said it well when he spoke: “Let’s take care of ourselves and each other.”

 3. Focus on the team

 A third way to introduce communal language is to refer to the “team” or “teammates.”

When facing a challenge, it’s important to rally the strength of the group, rather than battling alone. Athletes know this so well, and corporate leaders at every level need to summon the power of their people by introducing the language of the “team.”


If you have a challenge, it is better to work things out with your team members than to make unilateral decisions. If there is a need to reduce expenses, gather your employees together and work out a plan. You might say: “Here’s the situation we face as a team. I am looking to you for ideas and a collective response.” Out of this will come a collaborative solution: Perhaps a 20% pay cut for all, rather than pink slips and heartache for a few.

4. Say “together”

Using the word “together” is a powerful way of building a community. Just imagine that your manager calls a meeting with you and the rest of his direct reports. Think about how much more comforting it would be to hear him speak about how you will all get through a challenge together. In the same vein, use “all of us” when you can, to create that same sense of belonging.


About the author

Judith Humphrey is founder of The Humphrey Group, a premier leadership communications firm headquartered in Toronto. She also recently established EQUOS Corp., a company focused on delivering emotional intelligence training to the fitness, medical, and business sectors