Cut it out—How to stop using weak language at work

Are you undermining yourself by using weak language at work? Learn how to use more powerful words to get your message across with no apologies.

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It is incredibly important to be a good communicator at work. Whether you are working through a project with a large team or navigating a complicated issue at work, communication is key.
Here’s our question. How do you communicate at work? As women, we can tend (it’s not an exact science, so don’t @ me!) to use language that gives a little “wiggle room”—to make our coworkers feel more comfortable or at ease. We can tend to be apologetic, selflessly accommodating, and sometimes self-effacing.

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Of course, there is a line to tow—especially as a woman. If you’ve listened to “Flawless” lately or if you’re reading We Should All Be Feminists, you might recall this Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie quote,
“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful otherwise you will threaten the man.”
Not sure about you, but this resonated with us here at Career Contessa. When a whole society has taught you to constantly undermine your own power, how do you unlearn all of it?
What we can do is take small steps. We can recognize when we use language that undermines our intelligence, our strength, and our wisdom—and replace it with language that is powerful and unwavering.

Apologizing too much

This is one we struggle with—a lot. We recently published an article by Donna Moriarty detailing what to do instead of saying “sorry” when an apology is 100 percent unnecessary.
“The habit of injecting the word “sorry” into every other sentence you utter might seem harmless on the surface. But it can undermine your authority and your confidence, portray you as weak and indecisive, and even damage your credibility.”
Sure, there are times when an apology is necessary. However, we need to pay attention to when they are wholly unnecessary so that our true apologies are meaningful. Here are some common unnecessary apologies,
  • “Sorry, can you repeat that?”
  • “I’m sorry, but I disagree.”
  • “I have no available appointments this week. Sorry about that.”
  • “I’m sorry, but I have to let you go.”
Like most of the weaker language we may use, recognizing it’s happening is the first step to putting an end to the behavior. Take note of times when you apologize for things like asking for clarification, being busy, or simply taking up space—and stop doing it.

“Does that make sense?” or “Maybe that’s a stupid idea.”

This is something we hear (and say, ugh *facepalm*) all the time.
This is something we tend to say after explaining something complex, high-level, or containing multiple steps. Usually, you have laid out an amazing plan—only to undermine it all by apologetically saying, “Or I dunno, does that even make sense?”
Don’t do this! Instead of opening a line of discussion, this language creates uncertainty and doubt. By including this uncertain question at the end of a presentation or pitch, you might also be undermining the intelligence of your captive audience. Instead of using this dubious language, try this: “How does that sound to you?”
If something remains unclear, this opens a line of communication—without questioning or belittling yourself.

The “just” of it all

Just is a filler word that does more work to undermine you than maybe any other filler word. As part of putting this powerful language idea into play, we all installed the Gmail plugin, Just Not Sorry. This particular plugin will flag language that is overly apologetic or that sabotages your message.
Remember getting scolded by your mother when you were really young? You’re eight or nine years old and your mother is reaming you for being late to dinner. Remember what your comeback was? “I just—”, “But, I just—” and your mom probably cut you right off.  It’s because “just” immediately sounds like an excuse or a defense.
When you use “just” in an email or a meeting, it might seem harmless enough. However, in reality, it immediately sets you behind the ball. Pay attention to this word. When you write an email, give it a read over and remove all “justs” that don’t serve your message. Better yet, install that Gmail plugin and let it do the work. You might be surprised by how much you use this sneaky little word.

I’m no expert

First of all, if someone is asking you a particular question or trusting you with a set of tasks, you are likely the expert. Own it.
Too often, we fall victim to that sneaky voice in our head—the one that leads you to believe you are an imposter. Shut that down ASAP. You are an expert. You are the expert.  Don’t retreat into modesty.

 I feel like

Feelings and emotions are not bad, so we can throw away that narrative right off the bat. However, using the phrase “I feel like,” before presenting a thought or idea immediately undermines whatever is going to follow.
Consider replacing “I feel like,” with any of these phrases
  • “I am confident that,”
  • “My research has shown that,”
  • “My experience tells me that,”

Too much yes

There is such a thing as too much yes. While you should say yes to promising new opportunities, You don’t want to “yes” yourself beyond your capabilities.
As women, we are capable of taking on a lot without even batting an eye. Spreading ourselves too thin by saying yes to everything can lead to serious burnout. You might be saying “yes” too much if, at the end of the day, you have worked hard but still have a full to-do list completely untouched. Make sure to prioritize your foremost responsibilities before saying yes to helping someone else.
This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to replace “yes” with “no” every time. This can simply mean taking a moment to audit your responsibilities before saying yes. This means taking a beat or two—to truly weigh out what you can take on.
This article originally appeared on Career Contessa.