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4 Subtle Things You Say That Sabotage You From Being Taken Seriously And Getting Ahead

by Mia Mor 

Words matter. The language you use actually says a lot about you.

Regardless of who your audience is or how you are delivering your message (in a meeting, a presentation, over dinner, an email or a text), persuasive communication starts with the words you choose. Communicating effectively improves your self-confidence and earns the respect of others.

Terms to Avoid

Here are four very common terms to avoid that do not convey confidence and credibility:

1.     “I Don’t Know.”

We’ve all had uncomfortable moments, in a client meeting, a board room, with our manager or a supervisor where we simply did not know the answer to a question. Nobody likes to be caught off guard but you risk sounding incompetent, and even lazy, when you respond with “I don’t know.”

You are not expected to know everything, nor should you pretend you do. It is a good rule of thumb that if you are being asked the question it is because you are thought of as capable, but without a thought out response, you risk looking inept.

Here are some alternatives to help you out of that awkward situation:

  1. Ask an open-ended question.
    “Let me make sure I understand what you are looking for, can you give me more detail?”
    By asking an open-ended question this can buy time to formulate your response and clarify what the person is asking.
  2. Express what you do know. You may know something of what is being asked and can make an educated assessment.
    “Right now, my best estimate is… let me gather more information and get back to you.”
  3. Show that you are handling it. You may just not know. That is ok. Let them know that you value the question and that you care to get the information for them.
    You know I want to give this the attention it deserves, let me get a comprehensive answer and get back to you.” 
    Or, if it not related to your area of expertise,
    Let me make sure I find the right person for you to speak with.”

2.     “I Don’t Care.”

(Or, alternatively, “whatever you want”). This does not make you look cooperative or like a team player; this passive communication style implies that your ideas are not as important as others and it gives permission to others to ignore your wants and needs. Have an opinion; being around someone who never weighs in is the equivalent of a limp handshake. If you want to be respected, show interest and have an idea. How you express your opinions at work is a direct reflection of how people experience who you are.

I had a client who felt that he was being overlooked for opportunities at work, after some exploration, I gave him an initial assignment; whenever he was asked about anything, he was not allowed to respond with “I don’t care” or “I don’t know.” He did not realize how often that was his go-to response, especially around seemingly benign questions like, “where shall we go for lunch?” Instead, he was directed to be the decider, to answer the questions decisively and then be willing to “go with the flow.” (Taking other people’s input into consideration will maintain you as a balanced decision maker).

Within two months of putting this into effect, people were seeking out my client for his opinion. He chuckled as he told me he overheard two coworkers planning a colleague’s party, saying “Let’s ask John, he always knows where to go.” When he saw how quickly his colleagues’ perception of him changed, he gained the confidence to be more vocal in meetings. Shortly thereafter the higher-ups started to notice him too and he went from being overlooked to being the “go-to” guy.

Voicing your opinion, (without bulldozing it over others), commands respect as people begin to see you as an influencer, which opens doors for opportunity to come your way.

3.     “I’m Sorry”

Yes, we should be accountable for our actions, and of course we should apologize for a mistake if we’re responsible or if we’ve done something that hurt someone’s feelings. But too often the words “I’m sorry” are used as filler in a sentence, which can make you look passive or like you lack confidence.

The overuse of “I’m sorry” has gotten a lot of press lately. The New York Times wrote an op-ed piece and “Inside Amy Schumer” had a very funny sketch of professional women excessively apologizing. Yes, women often overuse this phrase and there are men that can benefit from paying attention to how much they use this phrase as well. The point is that routine use of this phrase definitely undermines how other people perceive you.

Being polite and saying, “I’m sorry” are not synonymous. Here are some common misuses of “I’m sorry” that are unproductive:

  • Don’t apologize to be nice. When someone bumps into you, it is not necessary for you to apologize for taking up space in someone else’s orbit. Often, for women, that is often an automatic response.
  • Don’t apologize when you have no reason to be sorry“I’m sorry, I will be right back. I have to use the restroom.” Or “I’m sorry, but this is not what I ordered.” Taking care of you is no reason to apologize.
  • Don’t apologize for someone else’s bad behavior, “I’m sorry, I just don’t like those kinds of jokes.” The person telling the off-color jokes should be the one apologizing.
  • Don’t apologize when asking someone a question related to their job function, “I’m sorry to bother you, but is that report ready?” Again that undermines your role and puts you in a position of being seen as meek.
  • Don’t apologize when you do not mean it or as an excuse for being irresponsible. This also undermines your professionalism and your trustworthiness within a company. It is better to be genuine and take responsibility.

4.     “Just”

Similar to its cousin “I’m sorry, “Just” is used too frequently and diminishes the user of this word. It is like a timid knock on a door requesting permission; it minimizes your position and makes you appear passive. “Just checking in“just wondering, “just thought I’d ask are all phrases that give authority to the person on the receiving end of these words.

Having an effective communication style shows that you respect yourself because you’re willing to stand up for your interests and express your thoughts and feelings while also honoring the thoughts and feelings of others.

With just a few tweaks you can shift how others see you and your perception of yourself awakening to new opportunities.

Take control of your vocabulary and change your life.

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