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

11 Things Socially Aware People Don’t Say

“Zoe, What’s up? You’re beaming!”

“You’re not going to believe it,” Zoe replied wearing a smile as wide as the sky. “I’ve finally gotten paid from the company I told you about in the United States for my designs. It basically doubled my monthly income. That’s not even the best part: I was offered a three-year contract. The owner of the company told me to expect the same pay, if not more, each month going forward.”

Zoe is the mother of my son’s best friend. Since I met her two years ago, she’s been fighting to get her passion project of designing patterns for kids’ clothing off the ground. Money has been tight. She and her husband have a second child on the way and they’re both working temp jobs in order to make ends meet.

Before my wife and I could offer her congratulations, however, one of the other people we were having dinner with decided to stomp on her parade: “Don’t get too excited,” he said in a stern voice. “Doing business between Spain and America is not cheap. You’re going to get crushed with taxes.”

We tried to butt in and salvage what was left of Zoe’s smile, but it was too late. As soon as she heard, “You can kiss half that money goodbye,” she was completely deflated. Instead of enjoying a well-deserved moment in the sun, she spent the rest of the evening in the shade asking for financial advice with a stressed-out look on her face.

This may be an extreme example of someone lacking social awareness. But we’ve all said things in the past without first thinking about how our words affect other people.

Fortunately, there is a very easy trick to make sure this doesn’t happen as often: keeping track of the phrases you hear that turn people off and being more conscious not to say them yourself.

In addition to “Don’t get too excited,” below are 11 more phrases that people with high social awareness avoid saying — capped off with suggestions of what they choose to say instead.

1. “I told you so.”

People don’t like to be reminded when they made a bad decision. And they certainly don’t like to be reminded they could have avoided a massive headache if they had only listened to you.

You may be able to get away with telling someone they were wrong and you were right when you are with your closest friends. But tread carefully, and make sure their smile isn’t hiding their embarrassment.

In the future, if you feel the words “I told you so” rising, take a moment to push them back down. Then let them know you’re sorry about how things turned out.

Our job isn’t to always make other people feel better — sometimes it’s simply not to make them feel worse. Removing the words “I told you so” from your vocabulary is one way to do that.

2. “I know how you feel.”

I asked my best friend how he was holding up shortly after his mother passed away. He replied that he’d feel a lot of better if people stopped telling him they know how he feels.

This is another extreme example, but it serves as a good reminder that we all experience things differently. My friend was close to his mom. The doctors gave her a few hours to live and my friend ended up holding her hand for a month before she passed away. As you can imagine, this took a major toll on his emotional well-being. People telling him they know how he feels, though not intentional, ended up pissing him off.

When someone is going through a hard time, even if you’ve experienced something similar in the past, you don’t always have to say something.

This can be difficult as we want to comfort the people we care about and let them know they’re not alone. Listening to them, however, and letting them feel your presence is enough.

3. “Good luck with that.”

Recently, I applied for a bucket-list job. When I told someone in my network they replied in a snarky tone, “Good luck with that.” Saying this was a blow to my confidence. They might as well have said what they really wanted to say, “You’re nuts Mike, you can’t do that.” I left the conversation questioning not only my decision to apply but also my abilities.

When someone shares their hopes with you, they aren’t necessarily looking for your approval. But they are looking for your support.

Instead of saying “Good luck,” try “They’d be lucky to have you,” or “You’ve put in the work.”

It’s just another example of a little switch that can make a big difference.

4. “It’s not my fault.”

In addition to death and taxes, the only other certainty in life is that other bad things are going to happen. When they do, pointing finger at others and casting blame is not a good look. Owning our actions and being accountable, however, absolutely is. It shows character.

The next time something goes wrong, even it if wasn’t entirely your fault, reduce the damage by accepting responsibility.

This may sound counter-intuitive, but as long as you aren’t someone who is constantly screwing up, owning the mistake, can build trust. This is because we all know how hard it is to step up when things go wrong.

5. “It’s all in your head.”

These words are dished out like candy to people who are struggling with anxiety and depression and they don’t go down well. The main reason for this is they imply that what the person is experiencing isn’t real or that they are imagining it.

According to my friend psychologist Nick Wignall, how we think about things plays a big role in how we feel or what we do, but it’s not the only factor. People almost always have a good reason for being upset, afraid, angry, or stressed. And when you say, “It’s all in your head,” you invalidate them.

It’s hard to tell by looking at someone from the outside what they’re dealing with on the inside. So instead of saying “It’s all in your head,” choose to be more empathetic by trying to understand why they feel the way they do — regardless if it makes sense to you or not.

6. “That was stupid.”

This one may sound obvious, but it has a lot of cousins who may disguise themselves as “Why did you do that?” or “What were you thinking?”

Comments like these not only pour salt on a still bleeding wound, they also put people on the immediate defensive and makes them more cautious of betting on themselves in the future.

One option is to use a softer opening comment like, “I’m curious,” followed by a less judgemental question — “What did your thought process look like?”

Or simply ask them what they learned from the experience and what they would have done differently.

7. “You always” or “You Never”

Nobody likes to be labeled. Words like “always” or “never,” no matter how nicely you say them, puts people on the defensive: “You never clean up.” “You always side with your parents.” “You never listen to me.”

If a reoccurring pattern is getting the best of you, focus on the problem, not the person.

One thing my wife does that is effective is she says some variation of the words, “I’m not sure you realize you’re doing this so often but staring at your phone while I’m talking to you doesn’t make me feel too great.”

8. “Everything happens for a reason.”

“Chin up boss. Give it a few days. Everything happens for a reason.”

Life isn’t always fair. Sometimes bad things happen to good people and sometimes good things happen to bad people. Looking back on things sometimes we find a lesson, but sometimes we don’t and we just got dealt a bad hand.

When this happens to someone we care about, our initial instinct may be to try and cheer them up and encourage them to look for a silver lining. Instead of trying to lift them up, however, when they are in need of a shoulder, just let them lean on you. Few things feel better than the support of a friend.

9. “As I said before.”

Like many of the examples above you could say this in the nicest tone possible and it’s still likely to annoy people. Give it a shot for yourself and say “Like I said before” out loud in your sweetest voice. It’s still condescending, right?

Instead of saying “As I said before,” or “At the risk of repeating myself,” try instead to rephrase your words or just go ahead and repeat yourself.

It could be that people didn’t hear you the first time, or you didn’t communicate as well as you thought you may have. After all, it’s only a good pass if you give the receiver a chance to catch the ball.

10. “With all due respect.”

Much like the phrases, “No offense, but” or “I probably shouldn’t say this,” rarely does something positive come after the words “With all due respect.”

These phrases are a massive signpost to people that they are about to get criticized.

“With all due respect, that’s a bad idea.” “With all due respect, you look tired.”

Sometimes we have to say things that people may not be looking to hear. When you are in this position, just come out and say what the problem is without leading with phrases like, “With all due respect.” People may not love it at the moment, but it can build trust in the long-run. We all need people who have the courage to give it to us straight.

Plus, “Your presentation still needs work,” it much kinder than adding in a snarky comment before it like “With all due respect.”

11. “Whatever.”

Imagine you’re making dinner after a long day and you ask your partner what they want and they reply by saying “Whatever,” “I don’t care,” or the one that really drives my wife nuts, “Up to you.” It wouldn’t make you feel very visible, right?

These phrases are dismissive and make people feel like you don’t care. A few easy options to say instead would be — “What about X?”, “Have you thought about Y?” or simply what our son Liam likes to say, “I want pizza.”

We all have our bad days and being asked our opinion when we are tired can be annoying. But if we have to respond anyway, we might as be helpful instead of making someone else’s life more difficult.

When it comes to navigating our relationships, what we choose not to say, is just as important as what we do say.

Few actions are more effective than taking note of the phrases people do not like to hear and doing away with them.

Just don’t forget to also keep track of the phrases that light people up, and make it a point to sprinkle them into your conversations as much as possible.

Thank you for reading.
— Michael

5 Questions Smart People Ask Themselves Before They Speak

“Think before you speak,” I told my 6-year-old son, Liam, earlier this week. I immediately regretted saying it as it’s often a generic phrase that parents give their kids when they say something rude, and I know I didn’t like hearing it when I was young. Regardless, I’m glad I said it because instead of nodding his head and scurrying away to play, Liam stopped and asked me an interesting question: “What should I be thinking about before I speak?”

At the time, his question caught me off guard, and I told him he should always ask himself if what he’s about to say is true, kind, or useful. But his question got me thinking if there’s more to the answer. As adults, so many of us run our mouths aimlessly, which can lead to stress and anxiety for ourselves and everyone around us. What should we be thinking about before we speak in order to make our time with others productive and meaningful?

Over the last week, I’ve been trying to better answer Liam’s question by collecting questions smart people ask themselves before they speak. Here are five we can all use.

Some arguments are necessary to have in the moment, but a lot aren’t — and the angrier or more stressed we become, the more our communication skills worsen. When feeling pressed or your emotions are running high, author James Clear recommends pausing and then asking yourself if what you want to say needs to be said by you right now. Our instinctive response will rarely be our best response. Embracing the phrase “Can we talk about this when I’m thinking more clearly?” saves so much time and energy.

As a startup founder and mentor at various organizations, Marina Glazman is often sought after for her advice and feedback. She told me that in giving advice, she always asks herself whether the words she’s about to share are actionable or not.

“Trust is built by taking the time to help identify the next right step the person in front of you can take,” Glazman explained. If you don’t have an answer, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with telling someone you need some space so you can give them a more thoughtful reply.

I asked Denise Smith Young, the former chief of human resources at Apple, how she approaches difficult conversations with co-workers in an empathetic manner. She offered me a string of questions that all hit on the same theme: taking a step back to think about the pressures other people may be under.

We all have things going on in our personal and professional lives that aren’t always obvious to others. Young explained that when it comes to communication, we must always assume there’s more to understand than what’s being said. Maybe the missed deadline isn’t due to incompetence — maybe their childcare collapsed during the pandemic and they’re five times busier than they used to be. Ask yourself what you are missing and if there could be something deeper going on that you don’t know about.

When the pandemic first began, author Elizabeth Gilbert shared on Instagram about how she was desperate to get a flight from Australia back to the U.S. Initially, she typed a string of frantic messages to her friends and family — “I gotta grab the last flight outta here while I can before there’s total pandemonium and chaos!” But she realized this wasn’t the way she wanted to be speaking. So she deleted the messages and wrote the following calm words instead: “Hey, I got a flight and I’m coming home early.”

The next time you feel stressed about something, consider if you’re using “drama language” or not. As Gilbert demonstrated, we all have the choice to add panic to a situation or to be a calming influence.

This question comes from my friend and writer, Niklas Göke. Life isn’t Jeopardy — you don’t have to jump in with an answer the first chance you get. Think about what you could learn if you simply paused and kept listening. When it comes to making our relationships tight, giving people space to express themselves so we can learn more about what they are thinking and feeling is always a solid strategy.

We’re bombarded with chatter. We talk because we’re afraid of silence. But I’m thankful that this week, my 6-year-old son Liam reminded me that few qualities are more valuable than learning how to properly think before we speak.

Thank you for reading.
— Michael