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A mother's wise words for the working world

Copyright 2004 Leah-Anne Thompson - all rights reserved

Why are most mothers great communicators? It's because they invariably have our best interests at heart and get to the point quickly. My late mother, Bertie, got to the point with impressive speed - and clarity.

She had to. It was a matter of survival. Bertie grew up with six older brothers, and later had a husband and four sons. Surrounded by men all her life, she developed a powerful communication style - delivering information to her kids straight between the eyes, but always with sincerity and often with a smile.

It worked.

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Charismatic, bright and funny, Bertie had a collection of favourite lines. (Don't all mothers?) They all can be used in the workplace, but only if you're prepared to back them up like she was.

Here are Bertie's top 10 sayings:

1. "Please don't start with me."

A verbal warning shot, Bertie was letting her boys know she wasn't in the mood to be pestered. She was establishing limits.

The contemporary workplace also requires more limits. It wouldn't be out of line to use "Please don't start with me" with an employee who was badgering you for a palatial office or the right to wear a mesh T-shirt on casual Fridays.

2. "You're in for a rude awakening."

Bertie was letting her sons know that in the future there wouldn't necessarily be someone at their beck and call, preparing balanced meals at their convenience, doing their laundry and fronting them money.

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At the office, "You're in for a rude awakening" might well be directed toward those entitled colleagues who somehow expect the professional world to treat them like their mothers did. It's never going to happen. You're doing them a favour by sharing that fact.

3. "Money doesn't grow on trees."

My brothers and I really didn't like to hear those words. They meant that Bertie, generous by any reasonable standard, was gearing up to say "no" to one of our outlandish requests.

While admittedly dated, "Money doesn't grow on trees" reminds your professional audience that extravagance is out, frugality is in, and that everyone has to do his or her part.

4. "You're something else."

This was not good. It meant that Bertie had found your behaviour particularly unseemly.

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At the office, it's probably best to use this term sparingly. Perhaps you could substitute the phrase, "Help me understand."

With that, you're reaching out, seeking a rationale rather than a defence, and deepening rather than undermining a connection.

5. "I haven't stopped."

Mothers work hard. When Bertie said, "I haven't stopped (working)," we'd look up at her vacantly from our third round of desserts, say, "yeah, thanks," and split.

She was simply looking for validation of her efforts.

You have the right to do the same.

When you've been working hard and productively and feel you haven't received the appropriate recognition, you can remind your boss and colleagues that you "haven't stopped." After all, if you don't tell your story, who will?

But you better make sure your story is worth telling.

6. "Will that be all, Your Majesty?"

Sarcasm - we got that. Bertie had her limits and the query made clear that her supernatural patience was beginning to wear thin.

You wouldn't be wise to parrot Bertie in the office. Employees can be sensitive, and sarcasm doesn't serve you well. Nevertheless, if you want to get the message across you could substitute "Are we done?" or "Are we good?"

That lets your listener know you have your boundaries, too.

7. "He's a real pill."

Bertie liked just about everybody, but once in a while she'd encounter someone she called "a real pill." (That's about as scathing as she got.) When she did, she'd be a trooper, maintaining cordiality and as much warmth as she could muster. She was quick to reach out and to forgive.

You'd be wise to follow her example. You too might think the phrase but you'd never say it aloud. If you come across someone you think is a real pill, take the high road. Success in our careers is in large part due to the support and co-operation of others. We need allies, not enemies.

8. "Get a good night's sleep. Things will look better in the morning."

This was terrific advice 40 years ago. It remains so today.

Bertie was convinced that bad behaviour, decisions and outlooks resulted from simple fatigue.

A good night's sleep provides us with energy, patience and perspective.

We need to fret less and sleep more.

9. "That poor soul."

My mother had tremendous empathy for others, a quality that seems to be in diminishing supply in the workplace these days.

There are always opportunities to display your empathy to those you work with. You need to look for them. Empathy reveals strength, not weakness. We need it to truly succeed.

10. "Thank you."

Bertie said that a great deal. She believed no deed was too small to go unappreciated and no relationship was too insignificant to be discounted.

In this frenetic, overwrought working world, we don't say thank you nearly enough. But a simple thank you can go a long way toward building long-lasting good will.

Jim Gray is a speaker, communication skills coach, principal of Media Strategy Inc. in Toronto, and the author of How Leaders Speak.

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