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8 Phrases That Can Make You Sound Weak at Work

“You have one minute to tell me why I’m here and another minute to tell me why I should stay!”

When my dad was starting out in his career, he was asked to give a presentation to the bigwigs in his organization during an extremely sensitive time. As you can imagine, when the biggest wig of all stopped him five minutes into his talk, my dad was frazzled. In the end, he pulled himself together and was later commended for telling them exactly what they needed to know and not a word more.

When I asked my dad for his greatest career lesson, this one reigns supreme — and it’s not only him who values clear and concise communication as research has shown again and again it’s a key driver to career advancement.

As someone who grew up with a severe stutter and social anxiety, I’ve had to put in a decent amount of work to get to the point where I make a good chunk of my living working with people to add more weight to both their spoken and written word.

Fortunately, you don’t need to do an entire personality revamp to speak more confidently. In fact, a solid place to start is being more conscious of the phrases other people say that diminish their authority and making a point to not say them yourself. After all, strong communication looks a lot like not weak communication.

Like all things in life — and especially online — context is everything. In general, if your goal is to have your voice heard and your ideas respected, cruise over the phrases below, and if you’re guilty of saying them, consider a re-word or eliminate them entirely.

When it comes to “career hacks” few are more valuable than asking the strong communicators around you which phrases to be mindful of. According to my friend Melody Wilding, LMSW, the author of “Trust Yourself” and executive coach for sensitive high-achievers, phrases like — “I’m not an expert, but…” and his popular cousin — “I’m not sure if this is a good idea….” are harmless prefaces for relaxed brainstorming sessions. But if you’re in a situation where you’re trying to get people to respect you and take your ideas seriously, these phrases undermine your credibility.

The next time you feel these phrases rising, stop yourself, and consider taking a more direct and less self-deprecating approach instead — “What I believe is the best direction is X” or “I would suggest we also consider Y.”

Every Tuesday I have a sounding board call with two-time tech founder Marina Glazman. The original idea for the calls was to discuss freshly brewing ideas for articles. Over time, however, my big motivation to speak with Marina is she’s one of the strongest communicators I know — if not the strongest.

According to Marina, weak objections tend to not only get overruled, but they send a signal to people that you’re not willing to take a stand.

“The client said they don’t like plastic, what about using glass?” is more effective than saying, “It’s just that the client said they don’t want to use plastic.” Or any variation of the words “The only thing is…”

I wasn’t going to include “Just” in this list as it’s been said before. But it’s worth mentioning because there’s an effective exercise to reduce how much you use it that doesn’t get as much play as it should.

For one week, before hitting send on every email you write, do a “cntrl+F” and type the word “just” into the search bar. Then, any time you find yourself writing anything like “I’m just reaching out…” or “I’m just checking in to…” — cut the fluff and lead with the meat.

This simple act will not only help you to be more conscious of how much you write it (and any other words you may use as a crutch). But it will also serve as a silent reminder to use it sparingly in conversation as being more conscious of what you write can seriously tighten your spoken word.

Plus, at least for me, “Thank you for X!” sounds much kinder than “I just wanted to say thank you for X!”

When asking for clarification, requests, or whatever kind of update you need from someone, be polite, but also remember people’s time is limited and you don’t want them to have to search for your point.

If you need a status update, ask for it. “I have to get X over to Y at Z time today. Can you give me a status please?” is perfectly acceptable. The same goes for “Can you give me an update on the request I sent over on Monday please?”

If you’re like most people, you miss stuff and direct reminders get a fire under you faster than dancing ones. So when you need an update, drop the “This is just a friendly nudge…” or “When you have a moment…” and ask for what you want.

Growing up with a stutter, I said this one all the time and I still use it from time to time if I’m approaching a stranger or I woke my wife up from a nap. When asking for a hand from a co-worker, however, announcing you’re about to bother them, increases the odds of you actually bothering them as like my friend Fred Dust, the author of Making Conversation, likes to say — “The words we say become the world we see!”

Plus, according to sociologist Maja Jovanovic in her TED Talk, saying sorry make us appear smaller and timider than we really are. So if you catch yourself complaining instead of saying “Sorry for venting” or “Sorry for laying this on you,” steal a line from Maja and try this simple switch instead — “Thank you for listening.”

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t apologize as we all know the world could do with more people taking ownership of their actions. But try to limit how much you say you’re sorry when there’s nothing for you to be sorry about.

Not fully formed thoughts and ideas can get messy and you should be working at a place that allows you to explore. But if you feel as if you’re rambling and your message isn’t landing (which should be obvious if you’re conscious of the facial gestures and body language of the people in front of you) — back up and start again.

“This idea is new to me, let me re-phrase this” is a solid option. Or “I like this idea, but I need time to find the words.” 

Depending on your audience and your relationship with them, you can even use some self-deprecating humor — “If I’m confused saying this you must be lost trying to understand it. Are you up for helping me hash it out?”

“Keep your ears peeled for what confident communicators aren’t saying!” My dad gave me this piece of advice a few years ago. As someone who works with anyone from CEOs to college grads, the difference in communication, as expected, is massive.

Firstly, the most effective leaders are tremendous simplifiers. Instead of over-explaining or bogging people down with details, they state the facts and list action points.

Secondly, you’ll rarely hear them belittle themselves. This may sound obvious, but “Sorry, I’m stupid” happens. A forward-thinking question of “How can I get this right?” can go a long way.

One of the major keys to advancement — if not the key — is found in how well you and your colleagues thoughtfully disagree.

Don’t hedge and take power away from your position by leading with “I don’t necessarily agree with this, but…” or “I’m not sure I agree with this…” when wanting to state an objection. “How about X” is a solid option. The same goes for “Have we considered this Y” or “I’d like to add Z.”

In short — and this applies to the majority of these statements — be mindful of how you start your requests or argument as it plays a role in how confidently your thoughts and ideas are ultimately received.

I’m a big believer that we’re better off focusing on kindness and becoming competent at the work we do instead of worrying about being viewed as confident.

That being said, our words matter, and if there’s an option that makes the same point but doesn’t potentially give someone the option to question our confidence, take it. You may find by reducing the phrases that weaken your stance, both your confidence and career stock begin to rise.

Thank you for reading.
My best to you and yours.
— Michael

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