"The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning."
– Mark Twain
Darlene Price, author of Well Said! Presentations and Conversations That Get Results, concurs. “Words matter,” she says. “They are a key component of persuasive communication. Regardless of the audience, topic, or industry, or whether the setting is a stand-up presentation, sit-down conversation, telephone discussion, or an online meeting, a leader uses language to influence someone’s mind in order to achieve a certain result. That’s one reason they’re seen as leaders; their words compel people to follow.”
Therefore, if you want to be perceived as a leader in the workplace, a great place to start is by deliberately choosing to speak words and phrases that are empowering to yourself and others; to use language that captivates, motivates, and inspires; and to communicate a vocal image that conveys clarity, confidence, and credibility, she adds.
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“In speaking with hundreds of executives and senior leaders over the past twenty years, certain phrases consistently come up as career-limiting phrases that jeopardize one’s professional image and potential for promotion,” Price says. “To the speaker they may seem like harmless words, however, to the listener they reveal a more critical issue: In a workplace where employers must be cutting-edge, competitive, and cost-effective, employees who use these phrases will likely be replaced with those who convey a more positive attitude, collaborative spirit, proactive behavior and professional demeanor.”
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Here are 13 phrases that should be banned from the office:
“It’s not fair.”
She got a raise, you didn’t. He was recognized, you weren’t. “Some people have food to eat while others starve,” Price says. “Injustices happen on the job and in the world every day. Whether it’s a troubling issue at work or a serious problem for the planet, the point in avoiding this phrase is to be proactive about the issues versus complaining, or worse, passively whining.” Instead, document the facts, build a case, and present an intelligent argument to the person or group who can help you.
“That’s not my problem,” “That’s not my job,” or “I don’t get paid enough for this.”
If you asked someone for help, and the person replied with one of the above phrases, how would you feel? “As importantly, what would it say about him or her?” Price says. “Regardless of how inconvenient or inappropriate a request may be, it is likely important to the other person or they would not have asked. Therefore, as a contributing member of the team, a top priority is to care about the success of others (or at least act as though you do).” An unconcerned, detached and self-serving attitude quickly limits career advancement.
“This doesn’t mean you have to say yes; it does mean you need to be articulate and thoughtful when saying no,” she adds. “For example, if your boss issues an unreasonable request, rather than saying, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. I don’t get paid enough for this,’ instead say, ‘I’ll be glad to help. Given my current tasks of A, B, and C, which one of these shall I place on hold while I work on this new assignment?’ This clearly communicates teamwork and helpfulness, while reminding your boss of your current work load and the need to set realistic expectations.”
Which of these two statements sounds more authoritative?: “I think our company might be a good partner for you.” Or, “I believe…” “I know…” or “I am confident that our company will be a good partner for you.”
“There is a slight difference in the wording, however the conviction communicated to your customer is profound,” she says. “You may have noticed, the first phrase contains two weak words, ‘think’ and ‘might.’ They risk making you sound unsure or insecure about the message. Conversely, the second sentence is assertive and certain. To convey a command of content and passion for your subject, substitute the word ‘think’ with ‘believe’ and replace ‘might’ with ‘will.’”
When someone thanks you, the courteous and polite reply is, “You’re welcome.”
“The meaning implies that it was a pleasure for you to help the person, and that you receive their appreciation,” Price says. “Though the casual laid-back phrase, ‘no problem’ may intend to communicate this, it falls short. It actually negates the person’s appreciation and implies the situation could have been a problem under other circumstances.” In business and social situations, if you want to be perceived as well-mannered and considerate, respond to thank you’s with, “You’re welcome.”
“Imagine it’s April 15th and you ask a friend to mail your tax returns before 5pm on his way to the post office,” Price says. “If he replies, ‘Okay, I’ll try,’ you’ll likely feel the need to mail them yourself.” Why? Because that phrase implies the possibility of failure.
“In your speech, especially with senior leaders, replace the word ‘try’ with the word and intention of ‘will.’ This seemingly small change speaks volumes,” she adds.
“He’s a jerk,” or “She’s lazy,” or “My job stinks,” or “I hate this company.”
Nothing tanks a career faster than name-calling, Price says. “Not only does it reveal juvenile school-yard immaturity, it’s language that is liable and fire-able.”
Avoid making unkind, judgmental statements that will inevitably reflect poorly on you. If you have a genuine complaint about someone or something, communicate the issue with tact, consideration and neutrality.
“But we’ve always done it that way.”
“The most effective leaders value innovation, creative thinking and problem solving skills in their employees,” Price says. In one fell swoop, this phrase reveals you are the opposite: stuck in the past, inflexible, and closed-minded. “Instead say, ‘Wow, that’s an interesting idea. How would that work?’ Or, ‘That’s a different approach. Let’s discuss the pros and cons.’”
“That’s impossible” or “There’s nothing I can do.”
Really? Are you sure you’ve considered every single possible solution and the list is now exhausted? “When you make the mistake of saying these negative phrases, your words convey a pessimistic, passive, even hopeless outlook,” Price says. “This approach is seldom valued in the workplace. Employers notice, recognize and promote a can-do attitude. Despite the glum circumstances, communicate through your words what you can contribute to the situation.”
Instead, try something like, “I’ll be glad to check on it again,” “Let’s discuss what’s possible under these circumstances,” or, “What I can do is this.”
“You should have…” or “You could have…”
You probably wouldn’t be thrilled if someone said: “You should have told me about this sooner!” Or, “You could have tried a little harder.” “Chances are, these fault-finding words inflict feelings of blame and finger-pointing,” Price says. “Ideally, the workplace fosters equality, collaboration and teamwork. Instead of making someone feel guilty (even if they are), take a more productive non-judgmental approach.” Say, “Next time, to ensure proper planning, please bring this to my attention immediately.” Or, “In the future, I recommend…”
Reserve the phrase “you guys” for friendly casual conversations and avoid using it in business. “Referring to a group of people as ‘you guys’ is not only inaccurate if women are present, it is slang and lowers your level of professionalism,” Price explains. With fellow professionals such as your boss, co-workers and clients, substitute “you guys” with terms such as “your organization” or “your team” or simply “you.”
“I may be wrong, but…” or “This may be a silly idea, but…”
These phrases are known as discounting, Price explains. They diminish the impact of what follows and reduce your credibility. “Remember that your spoken words reveal to the world how much value you place on yourself and your message. For this reason, eliminate any prefacing phrase that demeans the importance of who you are or lessens the significance of what you contribute.”
Don’t say, “This may be a silly idea, but I was thinking that maybe we might conduct the quarterly meeting online instead, okay?” Instead, assert your recommendation: “To reduce travel costs and increase time efficiency, I recommend we conduct the quarterly meeting online.”
“Don’t you think?” or “Okay?”
These phrases are commonly known as hedging—seeking validation through the use of overly cautious or non-committal words, she says. “If you truly are seeking approval or looking for validation, these phrases may well apply. However, if your goal is to communicate a confident commanding message and persuade people to see it your way, instead of hedging make your statement or recommendation with certainty.”
Imagine an investment banker saying, “This is a good way to invest your money, don’t you think? I’ll proceed, if that’s okay with you.” Instead, you’d probably want to hear something like: “This strategy is a wise investment that provides long-term benefits. With your approval, I’ll wire the money by 5pm today.”
“I don’t have time for this right now,” or “I’m too busy.”
“Even if these statements are true, no one wants to feel less important than something or someone else,” Price says. To foster positive relations and convey empathy, say instead: I’d be happy to discuss this with you after my morning meetings. May I stop by your office around 1pm?”
These are common phrases that might be difficult to eliminate completely from your everyday conversations—but the trick is to gain awareness of the language you’re using. “As is often the case with bad habits, we are unconscious of the fact we’re saying career-limiting words and phrases,” Price says.
Here are a few tips to build self-awareness and eradicate the phrases from your conversations:
Record yourself. When you’re on the phone in a business setting, record your side of the conversation, she suggests. “Listen carefully to the recording afterward (on the way home from work). Did you use any of the phrases on this list, or any other words or phrases that may be perceived as limiting or negative? Write down the phrase you used, mark through it, and beside it construct an alternate phrase that more positively communicates your message.” Keep this list handy, by your phone or next to your computer monitor, and review it daily.
Enlist a buddy. When you’re in meetings (and may not be able to record), ask a trusted co-worker to listen carefully to your language. “Ask them to write down any career-limiting words, phrases, actions or attitudes they perceive to be negative,” she says. “Treat them to lunch, check your ego at the door, and let them tell you what they heard.”
Listen for these phrases when others speak. When you hear how jeopardizing these phrases actually sound when spoken by another, it sends a powerful message to your brain heightening your own self awareness. Price says you should ask yourself, “How could she have phrased that idea in a different way?” Or, “What words would have communicated his point more positively?”