9 words and phrases that make any professional look weak

This article was updated on May 26, 2020 by Ladders staff. 

Hey, I’m not sure if you have the time right now, but it would be great if you can read my latest column. Is that OK?

…said the weakest communicator ever.

Confidence is a powerful tool to gain respect and get stuff done.


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As you compose emails/documents (and in conversation too), remove these words/phrases from your vocabulary. They make you look weak.

1. Just

“I just want to ask you…”

“It’ll just take a minute…”

“I’m just saying…

Weak, weak, weak. “Just” is a little word with big implications. Each time we use “just,” it suggests we waste someone’s time. No, if you have something important to say, then say it.

Well, anyway…it’s just a writing tip.

See how that sounds? Weak.

2. Sorry

Don’t apologize all over the place. In most cases, you didn’t do anything wrong. “Sorry” is more like “Sorry for bothering you” or “Sorry for taking up your time.”

Of course, if you did screw up, then yea…say “Sorry.”

But if you have worthwhile information to send in an email or say aloud, then go for it. Respect yourself and the value you add to the conversation.

A survey of 1,004 adults by SerenataFlowers.com, the UK’s leading online florist, found that the average Brit says “sorry” up to nine times per day. However a man will do it about eight times a day, while a woman tends to land around 10. And though it can seem harmless to add a quick “I’m sorry” to a text or email, it adds up. In a new study by Chicago Booth’s Shereen Chaudhry and Carnegie Mellon’s George Loewenstein they took a detailed look at the cost an apology can take on how the person is perceived.

The researchers looked at how four sentiments—thanking, apologizing, bragging, and blaming-are connected and how they are interpreted when it comes to competence and warmth. To conduct the experiment they had subjects participate in an online math game in which whether they won or lost would impact their earnings. One game was altered to be easier and therefore resulting in a higher score. Some of the subject pairs playing had time to chat after the games providing an opportunity to look at the language they used with each other.

It was found that 70% of the discussions involved thanking but only 15% included bragging. They also found that the pairs that did talk wanted to work together again because there were exchanges that included thanks. For the player that lost they tended to express more gratitude to make up for their lack of competence. This is essentially the reasoning behind why women apologize so much. They feel a pressure to appear warmer and will do so even if it means making themselves look less competent. Chaudry said in a review of the study, “Apologizing may include a cost to one’s competence, but apologizing makes you look warmer. So apologizing may have more benefit for women than men—but not apologizing may have more cost. The opposite is true for men.”

3. I’m not sure if you can, but …

Such an inferior tone. As if the other person is SO important and SO busy that you need to kneel down and beg for assistance.

How about “Would you like to…”?

Stay on equal footing with the person across from you. You’re no worse (or better). Eye to eye is the way to play it.

4. I hate to bother you, but …

Similar to #3, “I hate to bother you, but…” connotes the other person has all the power in the relationship. Even if you’re an intern, new hire or several years junior to someone at the company, you have every right to stand proudly and say, “When you have a minute, I’d like your opinion on…”

And let me tell you, plenty of business execs can “suddenly” find 15 minutes in their jam-packed schedules if someone wants their opinion. Maybe even 30 minutes or an hour.

5. I hope that’s OK.

Don’t give up authority in the conversation — you have the same rights to the territory. Instead, go with “Thanks for the consideration” or “I appreciate the help.”

Here are four “weak” writing habits specific to managers and other leaders in an organization.

6. “The new rule on vacation days has been put in place by me.”

Passive voice is perhaps the weakest way to communicate with your employees. You must be willing to stand by your decisions, and the best way is to put yourself (“I”) at the start of the sentence.

Correction: “I have put in place a new rule on vacation days.”

7. Put your call to action or request at the bottom of the message.

Timid managers wait until the last line of an email or document to explain what they need employees to do. It’s a subtle way to say, “I’m afraid to give orders or be in charge.”

Instead, put the directive high up in the message. Employees will see the information right away, and your message will have a more assertive tone.

As an example:

“Hi team,

I’m writing to remind everyone to have their fourth-quarter reports on my desk by 5 p.m. on Friday. Remember the report must include…”

Start strong, and employees will take notice.

8. More words = less respect

A boss who communicates with brevity commands a certain level of authority. That doesn’t mean you should write with a terseness that feels cold and emotionless.

The best leaders write with enthusiasm and an economical word count. It’s a skill that must be practiced every day by managers.

Whoops, there goes the passive voice again.

Managers must practice the skill every day.

9. Misspelling an employee’s first or last name

Want an easy way to lose an employee’s respect? Spell his/her name wrong in an email/document.

Want to ruin the relationship for the long-term? Spell the name wrong more than once.

Before you press send, make sure the names are 100% correct. These are the people who put in the hours for you day after day. If you repeatedly type “John” instead of “Jon,” it’s more than a “weak” approach.

It’s a clear lack of respect.

Well, I hope you like my advice. If not, sorry for the trouble!

Your words set the tone. Use them wisely.

This column first appeared on DannyhRubin.com.


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