A few weeks ago, I was doing one of my favorite things: facilitating a two-day leadership development course for a client.
During the session, I handed each participant one of our favorite resources, a bookmark featuring People Spark’s “Top 10 Phrases Every Manager Should Use.” If you’ve attended one of our presentations or stopped by our booth at industry trade shows, you may already have one of these bookmarks. (If not, you can read about our top-ten list here.)
One participant—an HR manager named Ann—said the bookmark helps her quickly refer to and use key phrases during feedback sessions or during casual conversations with employees. Ann told me that having a “cheat sheet” is so valuable, she’s started her own list of words and phrases managers SHOULDN’T use.
I admit, my first thought was about snarky statements and impolite phrases that might cross a manager’s mind but they’d never say out loud. Obviously, that’s not what Ann meant! She’s been collecting words and phrases that we—managers, leaders, and HR professionals—use every day without even realizing our language choices may be undermining (or even negating) what we’re trying to say.
Powerful stuff, right?
Here are a few of the “words with warnings” on Ann’s list:
But. How many times a day do you or your colleagues say “but?” If you listen for it, you may be shocked. The word is powerful—in a bad way because it instantly negates whatever statement came before it. For example, when someone says, “I’m sorry, but …” you know immediately that the person isn’t sorry at all.
Fortunately, “but” is a filler word that usually isn’t necessary. And if you do need a replacement word, consider “and.” (Did you see what I did there?)
By the way, “but” and “however” are synonymous. As a former colleague put it, “However is just a but in a tux!”
Always/never. If someone says, “You ALWAYS do this” or “You NEVER do this,” you’re going to defend yourself with, “I DON’T always do that!” or “I DO do that!” It’s a natural response to black-and-white language that leaves no room to acknowledge degrees of success or even effort. When managers use blanket terms like “always” and “never,” workers feel frustrated, undervalued, and unseen—because people aren’t typically 100% consistent with their behavior (either positive or negative), 100% of the time.
Take Ann’s advice and ditch “always” and “never” and replace them with gentler terms like “often,” “rarely,” or “seldom.”
I don’t care. Have you ever been so focused on something that you responded to someone’s unrelated concern by saying, “I don’t care about that?” I have. Of course, it wasn’t true—I cared deeply about what my colleague was talking about. Yet, in that moment, my attention was elsewhere. My response left us both feeling crappy.
A much better (and more accurate) phrase is, “My intent is to resolve the issue at hand,” or “My intent is not to dismiss what’s important to you.”
Thanks to Ann, I’ve been thinking about a few other words to add to the list including:
To be honest. When someone says, “To be honest,” I start wondering, “Hmm … does this mean you haven’t been honest with me before?” Even if you’re not bothered by these three words, they don’t add value to the conversation. Leave them out—and say what you honestly want to say.
Just. This word tends to minimize or soften the impact of what we’re saying. In some cases, that’s fine. At other times, it’s unnecessary. (“I was just wondering if you sent the customer’s order on time.”) Use “just” judiciously so it provides real meaning or value.
What would you add to this list? Are there words or phrases you hear at work or with your friends or family that rub you the wrong way? We’d love to know. Because words matter—and paying attention to our language choices makes a big difference to how we communicate, manage, and lead.
P.S. Ann, if you’re reading this, your wisdom and input made my day. Thank you!
To ensure your managers and supervisors have the leadership skills they need to engage employees, secure your spot in the next cohort of our Ignite to Transform program. Watch this video and email Erin to find out more.