Ten Phrases to Avoid on the Job

4 min read • Feb 18, 2013 • Ty Kiisel

Darlene Price is President and Founder of Well Said, Inc., a training and consulting firm specializing in high-impact presentations and effective communication.
As a 20-year veteran of the speech communication training field, Darlene has personally coached over 5,000 business professionals on the art of effective presentations and interpersonal communication. She has presented to audiences across six continents and coached the chief officers and senior leaders in more than half of the Fortune 100 companies. In addition, her work as a corporate spokesperson has earned her seventeen industry honors including one Emmy Award and nine Telly Awards.

You’re an expert in your field. Now become an expert at communicating your value to the market. Every prospect on Main Street America is willing to buy (or at least consider buying) something that fills a need or provides a benefit. Your ability to communicate this value begins with words – the right words. As Mark Twain said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.” Whether you’re speaking to customers, employees, partners or industry colleagues, certain words and phrases can thwart your mission and cause damage to your progress. If you want to articulate your vision, communicate value and instill trust in the minds of listeners, consider avoiding these ‘lightning-bugs.’

-1. Avoid “That’s impossible” or  “That can’t be done” or “There’s nothing I can do” or “No way.”

Even though you may feel this way on the inside, these negative phrases are perceived by others as pessimistic, unconstructive, even stubborn. Your boss, peers and customers most likely want to hear what CAN be done.  Instead say,  “I’ll be glad to check on that for you” or “What I can do is…” or “Because of government regulation, here’s what’s possible…”  On the outside chance every possibility has been exhausted, at least tell your listeners what you have done, what you intend to keep trying, or whose additional help you intend to recruit.

-2. Avoid “You should..”  or “You ought…”

What if someone were to say to you, “You should have told me about this sooner!” or “You ought to be on time.”  Or “You could have tried a little harder.” Chances are, these fault-finding words inflict feelings of blame and signal finger-pointing. Ideally, the workplace fosters equality, collaboration and  teamwork. Instead of making someone feel guilty (even if they are), take a more productive non-judgmental approach.  “Next time, to ensure proper planning, please bring this to my attention immediately.”  Or, “In the future, I recommend…”

-3. Avoid “I’ll try.”

In 1962, John F. Kennedy did not say, “We’ll try to go to the moon.” He said, “We will go to the moon…because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept.”  When your goal is to communicate vision and inspire confidence in the minds of others, replace the word “try,” with the word and intention of “will.”  The word “try” implies the possibility of failure. Imagine your customer says to you, “I need the service technician here by 10 am tomorrow or I’ll miss my noon flight.”  Is your reply, “Okay. I’ll try.” Or, “I understand the urgency, Susan. I will have Bob on site by 10AM.”

-4. Avoid “That’s not my job” or “I don’t get paid enough for this” or “That’s not my problem.”

If you’re asked to do something by someone, it’s because it’s important to them. Therefore, as a team player, one of your priorities is to care about their success. This doesn’t mean you have to say yes, it just means you need to be tactful and considerate when saying no. Even if the request is unreasonable, avoid abruptly blurting out, ‘You’ve got to be kidding! That’s above my pay grade.”  For example, if your boss lays yet another work-intensive project on you, reply by saying, “I’ll be glad to help. Given my current tasks of A, B, and C which one of these shall I place on hold while I work on this new assignment?’  This clearly communicates priority, reminds the boss of your current work load, and subtly implies realistic expectations.

-5. Avoid “I think…”

Which of these two statements implies more confidence and conviction:

“I think our company might be a good partner for you” vs. “I believe,” “I know,” or “I am confident that our company will be a good partner for you.”  There is a slight difference in the wording, however the conviction communicated to your customer is profound. You may have noticed, the first phrase contains two weak words, “think” and “might.” They risk making you sound unsure or insecure about the message. Conversely, the second sentence is assertive and certain. To convey a command of content and passion for your subject, substitute the word “think” with “believe” and replace “might” with “will.”

-6. Avoid “I don’t have time for this right now” or “I don’t have time to talk to you right now.”

Even if these statements are true, no one wants to feel less important than something or someone else. To foster positive relations and convey empathy, say instead, “I’d be glad to discuss this with you. I’m meeting a deadline at the moment. May I stop by your office (or phone you) after 2PM.

-7. Avoid “I may be wrong, but…” or “This may be a dumb question, but…” or “I’m not sure about this, but…” or “This may be a silly idea, but…”

These phrases are known as discounting. They diminish the impact of what follows and reduce your credibility. Remember that your spoken words reveal to the world how much value you place on yourself and your message. For this reason, eliminate any prefacing phrase that demeans the importance of who you are or lessens the significance of what you contribute. Don’t say, “This may be a silly idea, but I was thinking that maybe we might conduct the quarterly meeting online instead, okay?”  Instead, assert your recommendation: “To reduce travel costs and increase time efficiency, I recommend we conduct the quarterly meeting online.”


Ty Kiisel

Small business evangelist and veteran of over 30 years in the trenches of Main Street business, Ty makes small business financing and trends accessible in common sense language devoid of the jargon.