Words and Phrases That Undermine Your Authority

Guilty businesswoman behind laptop

By Laura McMullen

We think this article should basically cover the kind of important aspects of the way we talk in the workplace. It's just that some words can actually make you sound sort of bad. Does that, like, make sense?

Probably not.


The words we use in the workplace are significant, and some make you sound weak. Career and presentation experts suggest you think twice before uttering these words and phrases:

"I think," "I feel" and "I believe"Take a look at the following examples: "I think you'll be impressed with our final product." "I feel like option A is the better choice." "I believe we should be able to meet that Friday deadline." Why the buffer? In the first two sentences, of course they're your thoughts and feelings you're expressing, and by immediately stating the obvious, you dilute the power of the rest of your statement. When possible, nix those unnecessarily conditionals for a more assertive, assured sentence: "You'll be impressed with our final product," and "Option A is the better choice."

This nip and tuck isn't always an option, though. For forward-looking statements you don't want to guarantee, like the Friday deadline example above, Jerry Weissman, founder and president of Power Presentations Ltd., suggests replacing "think," "believe" and "feel" with what he calls "power conditionals," such as: "I'm confident/convinced/optimistic we'll meet that Friday deadline." Or: "We expect to meet that Friday deadline."

"Just" and "I'm no expert, but ... "

"Just" packs a lot of uncertainty in its four measly letters. Starters such as, "It's just that" and "I just thought" downplay the significance of whatever fabulous message you're going to follow them with. As career coach Chrissy Scivicque put it in a U.S. News post about being more assertive at work: "It's like they're giving the listener a warning that what's to come is trivial and irrelevant."

Similarly, she adds, avoid statements like, "This might sound crazy, but ..." or "I may be wrong, but ..." This might sound crazy, but no one is asking you to take a machete to your credibility before sharing a thought.

"Does that make sense?"

In Weissman's 2011 Harvard Business Review article, "Never Ask 'Does That Make Sense?'" he identifies the two negative implications of this question:

1. "Uncertainty on the part of the speaker about the accuracy or credibility of the content"

2. "Doubt about the ability of the audience to comprehend or appreciate the content"

If you want to check in on your listeners, Weissman advises instead asking, "Do you have any questions?"

"Like," "um," "actually," "pretty much" ... and pretty much any other filler word you can think of.

This includes "to be honest" and "honestly" – were you lying before? – as well as "sort of," "anyway," "kind of," "basically" and "really," Weissman says. When used unnecessarily, these words complicate an idea you want to be clear and weaken a statement you want to be strong, such as your business proposal, annual goals or employer feedback. Catch yourself using these words, and then eliminate them or find clearer, more specific substitutes. Is the conference pretty much over, or is it over? Were you honestly impressed by the keynote speaker, or were you impressed? Was the food sort of bad, or was it mediocre?

How to Weed Out These Words

In some cases, people say these worthless words basically because they're actually kind of scared of pauses and silences and, like, breaks in sentences, so they keep adding things, we think. Phew. "Those filler words have crept into the conversation, because people are buying thinking time, and because they don't pause," Weissman says. "They just ramble."

His suggestion for reeling in the rambling? "I coach people not to slow down, but to parse their words," he says. He admits that's easier said than done, given that it's tough to recognize the quirks in a speech pattern you've had your whole life. He suggests putting that smartphone to use and recording yourself while on a call or in a meeting. Then listen to the recording and transcribe what you say – including all the cringeworthy "ums," "likes" and "I feels." "Read how you speak," he says, "and you'll see an endless ramble."

Once you're aware of your penchant for "um" and "like," you can start recognizing – and avoiding – them in your everyday speaking. Otherwise, you might, like, continue sounding kind of unprofessional. And that won't go unnoticed.

"Some HR person, some VP of HR or some CEO who's interviewing you​ might just be a stickler," Weissman says. "I wouldn't want to risk it. I'd want to walk in fully armed."
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