Words are a powerful tool. And choosing the right ones can make all the difference in how your message is received.
Dorenda McNeil, Communication Expert and author of Virtually Perfect Business Etiquette: Workplace Tips For The Digital Generation explains: “Women are strong communicators in lots of areas, but often still come across as trying too hard to accommodate people, thereby appearing less confident in their requests and ideas.”
If you notice that these five words are flooding your e-mails and daily dialogues, then it’s time to reconsider how you communicate at work. The simplest changes will make all the difference. Guaranteed.
‘I just wanted to ask’; ‘I’m just the assistant’; ‘It was just a little report’. Sound familiar? Disguised as a polite cushioning word, ‘just’ is actually very loaded. As mindset mentor and author of Lucky B*tch: A Guide For Exceptional Women To Create Outrageous Success Denise Duffield-Thomas puts it: “‘Just’ is the ultimate minimiser. That one little word immediately shrinks your importance.” Ouch! Think about how you use it. Probably to soften a request, deflect compliments, apologise or seek permission, right? It’s weak, and characteristically overused by us women. So just quit saying it, okay? Most of the time—in e-mails, for example—you’ll realise you can simply edit it out. Bam. Gone. Bye! Directly stating, ‘I’m e-mailing to ask’, or ‘Could you please’, is assertive, polite, and cuts the fat. If this super-direct form makes you squirm, you can still communicate confidently and hold on to your pleasantries. Keep the point of your message stern, and case the edges with a classic, ‘I hope you are well’, or ‘Have a great day’.
Another word to try and reduce from your vocab is erm, ‘try’. You may think saying, ‘I’ll try’, to your manager’s request makes you sound dedicated, but it’s actually having the opposite effect. Coaching Psychologist Jessica Chivers explains: “‘Try’ is a very weak, non-commital word, and comes across as brushing people off. It doesn’t give the person you’re speaking to confidence in you.”
She illustrates that a much more powerful approach would go along the lines of: ‘Right, let me take 15 minutes to figure out how I can work that into my schedule’. Then if it’s plausible—great! But if not, provide your boss with answers and options, such as: ‘With my schedule as it is, I can have it by Tuesday. But if it’s needed by Friday, I could achieve that by postponing project X’. This exhibits leadership and problem-solving skills. Studies have also demonstrated that men consistently overestimate their abilities to complete a task, whereas women do the exact opposite. You work hard—so believe in yourself! And heck, don’t be afraid to overestimate your ability and fake it ’til you make it. Instead of a shy, ‘I’ll try,’ say, ‘Yes!’ and then figure it out along the way. You’ll learn new things, and you never know what opportunities that may lead to.
When used in the correct context, ‘sorry’ is a powerful word. Note: not when used to request a minute from your manager, or squeeze past someone in the tea room. Again, we’re ‘sorry’ to say, we get a bad rep when it comes to over-apologising.
Tara Mohr, Women’s Leadership Expert and author of Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message, explains: “If you’re apologising for having ideas and questions, it’s hard for others to take you seriously or see you as a confident leader. Apologising constantly reinforces the message that you’re making mistakes.”
Like ‘just’, ‘sorry’ can usually be completely dropped.
Denise advises that you begin by scanning your e-mails before hitting ‘send’, and taking out any apologetic fillers. “Simply ask for what you need and delete all the passive parts,” she says.
Once you’re aware of how much you say ‘sorry’—and when it’s not needed—it becomes easy to edit out of your communication. If you’re struggling, ‘My apologies’, sounds more professional and more powerful.
If you find yourself saying to your colleagues, ‘I wish the weekend would hurry up,’ or, ‘I wish I could get promoted,’ then stop. Immediately. You’re probably just thinking out loud, but it speaks volumes about how you feel within your job, and often reflects badly upon you. In the context of work, ‘wish’ is a negative word, and implies dissatisfaction, inaction, and even laziness. “Strong and effective people don’t wish, they do,” asserts Dorenda. "‘Wish’ is about you not being an agent,” reinforces Jessica. So before you say a wishful sentence, stop and think—is there an action you can take to make it happen? If not, it’s best left unsaid. If so, start thinking about how you can get these wheels in motion. If you wish you’d been selected to work on a special project, ask, ‘How could it be me next time?’ Book in five minutes with your boss, and find out what steps you should take to be considered.
Now, we’re not demanding you transform into the office Ice Queen—only that you think about how you use this word day-to-day. When phrased to deliver ideas and opinions—‘I feel it would work better like this,’—it doesn’t project confidence or committal, similarly to the phrase ‘I think’.
But according to Dorenda, as well as projecting a passive and submissive tone, ‘I feel’ further plays into (unfair) gender stereotypes of emotional-lead women in the workplace. She suggests we swap ‘feel’ and ‘think’ for words that “connote strength”. Try saying, ‘I’m confident’ or, ‘It’s my opinion that’, instead. If you’re struggling, ease yourself in by adjusting it just a notch. Denise suggests: “A small change could start by your stating, ‘yes’, or ‘no’, but follow it up with, ‘as I feel that’, as it projects much more power than an unambiguous answer.”
Pro Tip: LANGUAGE IS HABITUAL AND CAN BE HARD TO CHANGE. TAKE SMALL STEPS AND PICK ONE WORD A WEEK TO PHASE OUT. NEED HELP? BUDDY UP WITH A CLOSE COLLEAGUE AND MONITOR EACH OTHER’S PERFORMANCE.