Communication is one of the most important skills to have in your professional tool belt. Tone, the ability to be concise, and good listening skills are all important, but ultimately, words matter most. That’s why it’s important to recognize how your word choice can help you, and when it's holding you back.
The words you use convey your experience, expertise, and confidence, all of which can greatly influence how you are treated and perceived at work.
Here are four words that may be holding you back by conveying a lack of confidence (whether you realize it or not). If you regularly use any of these words in your written or verbal communication, we offer suggestions of what to say instead.
Hint: Sometimes, the best option is to drop the word completely!
How it can hold you back: First, a clarification: We’re not talking about the word “just” as in “I just got back from vacation.” We’re talking about “I just wanted to say” or “I just think we should.” Using “just” to temper whatever bit of information comes next communicates a lack of confidence in the statement or in your grasp of the subject matter.
What to say instead: Most of the time, you don’t have to say anything in its place. In other words, remove “just,” and the sentence can probably stand on its own.
- Before: “Just keep in mind that we try to schedule volunteers for four shifts or fewer per month to avoid burnout.”
- After: “Keep in mind that we try to schedule volunteers for four shifts or fewer per month to avoid burnout.”
Sometimes removing “just” will highlight other unnecessary words or phrases you can drop, such as “I wanted to say” or “I wanted to add.” You don’t have to say that you wanted to say something. You can come out and say it!
- Before: “I just wanted to add that Jane said we should wait until she’s back from vacation to choose a printer for the annual report.”
- After: “Jane said we should wait until she’s back from vacation to choose a printer for the annual report.”
How it can hold you back: Similar to “just,” the phrase “I think” can suggest you’re not confident in the statement that follows. “I think” doesn’t communicate the experience and expertise behind your statement; it implies that your statement is merely a thought, not an evidence-based contribution to the discussion.
What to say instead: You don’t need to banish “I think” from your vocabulary; sometimes it’s appropriate, such as when you are asked for your thoughts on a topic. In other instances, use the same trick suggested above: Remove “I think” from the sentence and see if it works.
- Before: “I think our website could use a redesign. The current design is hard to navigate and has limited accessibility features.”
- After: “Our website could use a redesign. The current design is hard to navigate and has limited features.”
If removing “I think” doesn’t work, try to replace it with something more confident, such as “I recommend” or “My recommendation is.”
How it can hold you back: “Actually” is used to emphasize something surprising, such as, “The figure skater actually landed a triple axel, triple toe!” So, when you use “actually” at work, you’re suggesting that the statement you’re making, or even the fact that you have a statement to make, is surprising—which is not the impression you want to give.
What to say instead: At the risk of sounding like a broken record, your first try should be removing the word and seeing if the sentence still works.
- Before: “Actually, I would recommend suppressing current donors from this email appeal so we can send them a thank you as part of the campaign update.”
- After: “I recommend suppressing current donors from this email appeal so we can send them a thank you as part of the campaign update.”
Or, even better: “If we suppress current donors from this email appeal, we can send them a thank you as part of the campaign update, which will help with donor stewardship.” This way, you’re making a declarative statement, without any qualification, and you’re backing up your recommendation with your knowledge of donor stewardship.
If what you’re saying truly is surprising, then it’s fine to keep “actually.” For example: “Actually, that email performed well, despite it going out at 9 p.m. on a Friday.” “In fact” or “surprisingly” also work in this situation.
How it can hold you back: You should absolutely apologize for things that are your fault, such as a missed deadline, a typo in an important publication, or a mishandled situation. The problem is, people often say “sorry” as a reflex, whether it’s their fault or not. Over-apologizing at work can make it seem like you don’t understand your role in those situations, and it can make the true apologies—the times when something truly is your fault and you had control of the situation—seem less sincere.
What to say instead: One professional habit to consider picking up is saying “thank you” instead of “sorry” when the infraction is small, such as being five minutes late to a meeting.
- Before: “Sorry I’m late.”
- After: “Thank you for waiting.”
“Thank you for waiting” communicates that you respect your colleagues’ time and recognize the inconvenience you caused without over-apologizing for something that happens to the best of us.
Ever find yourself saying “sorry” when you want to understand a decision or suggest an alternative approach? You don’t have to apologize for contributing at work—that’s what they hired you to do! Try this instead:
- Before: “Sorry, could you explain why we’re doing the membership drive this way?”
- After: “I don’t understand why we’re doing the membership drive this way.”
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As a nonprofit advocacy professional living in Washington, D.C., Deborah works with groups across the country to educate their communities and lawmakers about public policies that can help low-income residents make ends meet. She is passionate about helping people connect their interests to a cause they believe in and empowering them to take action.