There are several words and phrases we’ve all used that can inadvertently diminish our authority and make us sound less than confident. When we say these with any kind of regularity, they water down our message—and, with it, people’s ability to take us seriously. Keep your ear out for these apprehensive phrases and practice eliminating or re-wording them to sound more assertive.
It’s been said before, but it’s so rampant it bears repeating: We need to stop qualifying everything we say with “just.” When we introduce our questions and ideas with this little four-letter word (“I’m just following up,” “Just wanted to add”) the undertone is one of apology; it’s a subtle pre-emptive excuse for potentially disturbing someone. It minimizes our power, and sounds as if we’re asking for permission to speak—something confident speakers rarely do.
Instead of trying to appear less bothersome by relying on “just,” try the more direct: “I wanted to know how you feel about X” or “Checking in to see if you’ve had a chance to review that report.”
“Sorry (to bother you…)”
Listen. There are legitimate times we should be sorry to bother someone (like when they’re eyeballs-deep under four blankets enjoying some amazing REM-sleep). But “sorry” has become common usage in situations that require no apology. “Sorry if this has been said before,” “Sorry for venting” or even apologizing to employees: “Sorry, can you tell me how much this is?”
While seemingly a polite and cordial thing to say, when we apologize needlessly, according to Canadian sociologist Maja Jovanovic, we appear smaller and more timid. Jovanovic notes that, “Apologies have become our habitual way of communicating.” She encourages us to replace all those extra sorry’s with “I’d like to add,” “Why don’t we try this,” or the always appreciated “Thank you.” (Try it next time you’re late or don’t respond promptly to someone. Instead of saying “Sorry,” say “Thank you for waiting.”)
“I was wondering…”
Why do we feel the need to preface so many of our questions with the obvious, “I was wondering…”? (Of course we were, or we wouldn’t be asking.) This is another way to soften a request, or tepidly ask for agreement, rather than owning it. “I was wondering if we should call Bob?” “I was wondering if we could do pizza instead of sushi?” Replace the wondering with, “How about we…?” or “What do you think of X?”
“Like, uh/um, you know”
Remember in “It’s a Wonderful Life” when Zuzu says, “Look daddy, teacher says, every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings?” Well, every time we use filler words, our message sounds like hot garbage (and loses credibility).
Here’s a fun experiment. Record yourself during your next conversation with a friend, or ask your work spouse to count how many times you use filler words such as “like,” “um,” and “you know” in your next Zoom meeting. (Bonus points if they also track “kinda” and “sorta.”) Chances are, it’s more than you think. We’re often immune to our overuse of these common filler words, but we need to be more aware. They make us sound hesitant, nervous, even less intelligent.
Other hacks to kick the habit: Tap your leg every time you hear yourself using one, speak more slowly and deliberately, or force yourself to pause and breathe whenever you feel the urge to drop an unnecessary filler. What could you say instead? Do you need to say anything at all?
“I’m no expert but…”
This self-deprecating disclaimer (and its cousin “I’m just spitballing here”) is often followed by opinions or ideas we’re not sure of, but we’re about to share anyway. Which, in the context of a casual meeting or an informal brainstorming session, isn’t awful. But in more professional settings, leading with denial of knowledge or expertise can negatively impact how people hear what follows. Sure, we may sound non-threatening, but we also sound easily dismissed. To garner more respect, try, “I’d suggest we consider X” or “I think Y is the best direction.”
“Does that make sense?”
This and its sister phrase “Do you know what I’m saying?” are telltale signs we know we’ve lost the plot. If we think we’re rambling, or don’t have the words to clearly convey our point, there are a few solid alternatives to looking for external validation that we’re not being too confusing. For an immediate do-over, pause, say “Let me re-phrase that” and start again. If you’ve got that deer-in-headlights feeling try “There’s a lot I’d like to say about this” or “This is a new idea to me” followed by “I need a bit more time to formulate my thoughts.”
“Unless I missed it/Unless memory fails me…”
There isn’t a soul among us who hasn’t missed or forgotten some key piece of information important to the conversation we’re currently having, at work or otherwise. It’s normal, and we have no beef with using these phrases sparingly. But when we say “Unless I missed it” or “Unless memory fails me” habitually, it can make us appear scatterbrained or chronically unable to remember things. (Which, we all are to some degree. But saying it out loud among certain audiences is a habit worth curbing.) If you need confirmation, try “Is that accurate?” or “Can anyone confirm?”
“This may be a dumb question…”
It’s hard to say what’s more unsettling: the feeling of not knowing something we think we should know, or the corresponding panic to cover up this insecurity while still getting the answer we need. This is when we say things like, “This is probably a dumb question but…” If you’re interested in being amore confident speaker or effective leader, this question must be dropped stat. We should never belittle ourselves and our inquiries, at least not in front of others. Instead, state what you think the answer could be, followed by, “Do I have that right?”