9 Common Words and Phrases You Should Stop Saying at Work (+ what to say instead)
There are a few work-related encounters that I wouldn’t forget so easily. One of which was with a previous supervisor. There was an opportunity I was keen to attend, and so after putting myself forward and having a chat, I said to him:
“I have to go for this conference”.
He turned around, looked at me with a straight face and said “you don’t have to”.
If I could, I’d have turned red in the face. Of course I didn’t have to. It would have been great to. I’d have loved to. But I didn’t HAVE to.
Words are incredibly powerful and no less so in an office environment. Some phrases and words are simply not recommended. These undermine your relationship with people, your capabilities and your opinion. They are words that are so easily used but which one must consciously avoid.
1. Words that show reluctance / uncertainty / incompetence
- "I can’t"
- "I’ll try"
- "I think"
- "I’m not sure"
- "I don’t know"
At work you often want to come across as a go-getter, someone who is willing to find solutions, willing to go the extra mile. These words defeat that intention. And that’s not to say you would always be in a position to go that extra mile or even be willing to. But that reluctance or uncertainty need not be voiced out. These words leave a bad impression on the hearer that may not correspond to how you actually feel.
Let’s take a couple of examples.
You're super busy at work and your boss or senior asks for a piece of work to be carried out.
Saying “I can’t do it” or “I don’t have time” comes across as straight-up unwilling. A better approach would be providing a solution – “Sure I’d love to do that for you. Is it okay if I send it at 10pm as I’m currently working on a deadline”.
Similarly, words like "I’ll try" and "I think" show uncertainty and that you can’t be banked on. You need to show that you can take full ownership of a situation or task.
Now, you’re probably wondering what’s wrong in saying “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure” – after all no one knows everything. There’s nothing wrong, but those words don’t provide a solution.
- Boss: Does any one have a summary of the new report?
- Worker A: I don’t know.
- Worker B: I’m not sure, I’ll try to get it.
- Worker C: I’m currently looking into it. I'll email you a summary later today.
Now worker C may never have heard of the new report. B on the other hand might have heard of it and actively trying to source it. But who do you think the boss is going to think of as the go-getter? Yup, C.
2. Words that belittle your opinion / credibility
I was in the middle of an informal group and we were asked to share on a funny encounter. Before I started, I said something to the effect of “well, I’m not sure if this is really funny but…”. Right there, the moderator stopped me – “you can’t possibly suggest that this may not be funny and still expect us to listen with full attention". Literally, I played myself.
And it’s so true. There are phrases the simply make one lose interest or basically doubt the speaker.
- "This may be a silly idea but…"
- "I may be wrong but…"
- "I’m going to ask a silly question.."
It starts you off on the wrong foot. These phrases are often used when we don’t believe in ourself and capabilities. It’s like being the butt of your own joke – so it doesn’t hurt as hard when others joke about you.
It may be a silly idea to you but still put it forward - “I suggest that… as this will enhance…"
3. Words that accuse or blame
On almost every job description you’d see the request for a “team player”. That’s key – being able to effectively work with others. No one wants a colleague who throws people under the bus with words like:
- "you should have…"
- "you failed at…"
- "He’s a jerk"
- "It’s not my fault" (i.e it’s someone else’s?)
- "Whose job is on the line for this?" (meaning someone takes the blame)
A better approach is to suggest an alternative as a team:
- “perhaps we ought to have done it this way"
- “it might be worth considering this approach in future”
4. Words that show lack of leadership or taking responsibility
- "That’s not in my job description"
- "I don’t get paid enough to do this"
- "That’s not my problem"
- "There's nothing I can do"
In applying for the job, you probably emphasised that you love challenges and taking responsibility. But in the face of it you shrink. Even if you truly don’t get paid to do a task or if it’s really not your role, no one has to know. If you are unable to find a solution the better approach is to take responsibility to find someone who can.
5. Words that self deprecate
No one’s going to take pity on you because you said out aloud in a meeting “oh my goodness I’m such an idiot”. Nope. In actual fact they’re likely to think you’re genuinely incomepetent. So ditch those as well.
6. Words that show resistance to change
- “This is the way it’s always been done”
- “If it ain't broke don’t fix it”
- "We tried that suggestion the last time"
If we all did things the exact same way without innovation, there’d hardly be any progress. So be careful you don’t come off as one who is resistant to change or lazy. You want to appear (and be) forward thinking and innovative. You may have tried the suggestion before - but other factors may have caused it to fail.
7. One liners
Honestly, one liners kill conversations and at work and they come as you being un-interested. We all know how upsetting it can be when people reply a whole text of messages with “ok” or “k” or “cool”. It’s worse at work and it really doesn’t matter the situation - whether in the elevator or being asked about a task. So words like “fine”, “good”, “okay” etc are a no. Let's assume you run into your boss in the elevator
Boss: Did you have a good weekend
- Colleague A: Yes
- Colleague B: I had a great one actually, was at Wembley for the Nigeria v England football match. Amazing atmosphere. Did you watch it?
- College C: Not too bad
Who do you think the boss remembers and is likely to build a relationship with or choose to work with?
8. Words that complain or criticise
- "It’s not fair".
That your team mate got promoted over you or someone earns more, could happen in the workplace. But you don't have to use these kind of words out loud at work (not saying you can't think it). You want to come across as trying to understand the issues and how it can be resolved.
“I believe Titi and I are on the same level, but I understand she earns slightly higher. Could you let me know if there are targets I ought to be hitting. I’m keen to deliver my best and be compensated accordingly.”
- "I hate my job"
- "This is the most stupid task ever"
- "That client is actually crazy"
No need to really explain why you shouldn’t be saying this.
9. Apologetic / “nice” words
- “I was wondering if we could catch up by 4pm?"
- “Hi Tami, I just wanted to let you know that I completed the review and..."
- “Sorry but could you edit that document"
Many times these are unnecessary - being used as filler words and to appear “nice”. Women are often prone to this. Don’t "wonder". Don't "just". Don't be "sorry" . Say it as it is.
- Could we catch up at 4?
- Hi Tami, I completed the review and here’s a summary
- Please edit that document.
The above words and expressions probably look like a lot, but honestly it’s a little change here and there that make a huge difference to you, and more importantly how others view you. It takes a conscious effort.
- ask a team mate to look out for you when you generally speak and point out these kind of words
- take time to replay conversations and your choice of words in your head
- listen carefully to excellent speakers and mentors. Watch their choice of language - learn from it.
It's an ongoing process.
Do you typically use such words? I’ll really love to hear your views and experiences on language at work. Please leave a comment and as always if you find this post useful, do share with others.
pS: Some people have suggested we drop the words “no problem” when asked to do a task or as a response to "thank you". The argument is it insuinates that it could have been a bother at all. So simply “sure happy to help” or “it was my pleasure doing that” are preferred.