Have you ever had the experience of trying to communicate with someone who speaks a different language to you?  It’s tricky, isn’t it?  Body language and gestures can allow you to get basic messages across, but it’s hard to have a meaningful, flowing conversation.

A few years ago I learned that this applies to how we express love as well.  In the book The 5 Love Languages, author Gary Chapman explains that we all have different love languages, which are essentially our preferred ways of communicating love.

Understanding this made an instant difference to my relationship with my partner, because we realised that we each express love in different ways and this was leading to some confusion and miscommunication.

The love languages are:

  • Words of affirmation
  • Acts of service
  • Quality time
  • Physical touch
  • Gifts

My partner and I realised, for example, that words of affirmation are important to me, but not really important to him.  So if I express my love by telling him “I love you” or “I really appreciate you”, he hears the words but doesn’t experience them as an expression of my love.  For him, they’re literally just words.

And because he doesn’t value words of affirmation the same way as I do, it didn’t occur to him to say such words to me, leaving me questioning whether I was actually loved.

For him, acts of service are far more important than words of affirmation.  Knowing this about him helped me to understand that the little (and big) things he does for me are his way of expressing love.  I also realised that in order for me to show him my love, I needed to do things for him rather than tell him I love him.

Can you see how quickly that made a difference for us?  Perhaps you’re already having some insights on this that will help your relationship.  It all comes down to ensuring that you express love in the right love language for the other person – which might be a different language to your own preferred one.

If you are in a relationship I highly recommend you read more about this – you can go to 5lovelanguages.com for more information.

However, for now let’s take this back to leadership.  Why do I think there is a connection with love languages and leadership?

Well, I don’t feel that people necessarily need to feel loved by their leader but I’m confident that most people want to feel valued.  So in the workplace context, let’s consider the love languages as helping you understand how you can let people know you value and appreciate them.

The love languages through the lens of leadership:

  • Words of affirmation. Someone in your team whose primary love language is words of affirmation is likely to feel valued and appreciated when you give them praise and recognition.  So be sure to thank them for their work, tell them the impact they make on the team/your customers/the business, and tell them how much you value and appreciate them.
  • Acts of service.  A person who values acts of service will feel appreciated when you do things for them.  This might mean helping out when they’re struggling with something, rolling up your sleevesand getting involved in team tasks, or backing them up and supporting their work.
  • Quality time. As a leader, are you spending quality time with your people, especially those who have this as a primary love language?  Quality time means ensuring you have regular 1:1 contact, connecting with them on what’s important to them (which might be their own development, for example), and perhaps most importantly of all, being present and attentive.  If you have a team member who values quality time and you regularly cancel their 1:1 meetings or choose to focus on your emails while talking to them, they are unlikely to feel valued (or respected, or appreciated).
  • Physical touch. This one’s a bit tricky in the workplace and we definitely don’t want to stray into inappropriate territory here!  I have two takes on this.  One idea is that this is an extension of quality time, with an emphasis on building social connection.  So this means things like coffee catch ups, or social conversations over lunch, and asking them about things like their family and social life.  Depending on your team, there might also be some work-appropriate physical touch, such as handshakes or high-fives or even celebratory hugs.  We all know people who don’t feel comfortable with hugs, and I’ve also worked in teams where milestones, achievements and farewells were celebrated with hugs.
  • Gifts. People who enjoy the love language of gifts are ideal candidates for more tangible rewards, such as thank you cards, vouchers or flowers.  They’re also likely to feel valued if you unexpectedly buy them a cup of coffeebring in chocolates after a holiday, or buy a smallgift on their birthday. If your workplace has a formal reward and recognition programme they’re likely to enjoy being recognised through this means, and they may be motivated by competitions when there are prizes up for grabs. 

How to bring this to life

You could have a fun conversation with your team by introducing this concept to them, or you can simply look for clues.  Most people will show their love languages through their actions, so the person who always buys a thoughtful little gift for colleagues is likely to appreciate receiving gifts as well, for example.  Start noticing different words and behaviours to build a picture of what language would most resonate with them, and then check in on whether you are regularly speaking their preferred language.

Speaking the wrong love language, whether it’s in a social or leadership capacity, means that your intended message simply won’t be received, and you may in fact irritate the other person. So choose to find the right love language to foster a sense of belonging and help people feel valued and appreciated.