Ever find yourself playing it safe with your language at work? As in—ending statements with question marks in your voice, or prefacing any critique or feedback or new idea you have with “Sorry, but… .”
Yeah, me too. But you know what? This style of communication keeps you from sounding like the seasoned professional you are and might even be what’s preventing you from getting ahead at work.
So it’s time to put aside our wishy-washy words and start sounding authoritative. Here are a few mistakes I find myself making from time to time—and how I’ve learned to keep them in check.
1. Asking Questions (Instead of Making Statements)
Does everything you say? Come out sounding? Like a question? When I find myself ending a sentence at work with that lilt, it means I’m unsure of what I’m saying and trying to read my listener to see if he or she is going to agree with where our conversation is headed. If I’m getting negative signals, any confidence I had starts to fade, and I’m stuck sounding like a seventh grader.
At that point, I’ve lost control of the conversation, and it can be hard to get it back on track to make my argument. The fix, I’ve found, is to make sure I can stand behind everything I’m saying. Before going into an important meeting, I’ll run through all of the reasons why I stand behind my recommendation. Then, instead of looking to a teammate for confirmation (another form of self-undermining), I can remind myself of the facts that led me to my decision. Plus, I know I’m prepared to clearly state my reasoning if someone disagrees.
2. Apologizing (When It’s Not Your Fault)
This one I learned from a guy I dated in college who hated unnecessary apologies. Sure, there are times saying “I’m sorry” is the only appropriate response—like when you make a mistake. But if you’re apologizing for something that’s not your fault (whether it be to the person who stepped on your foot trying to squeeze past you on the subway, the co-worker who forgot the meeting you’d scheduled with her, or the client who isn’t happy with a new market trend), stop. All you’re doing is taking responsibility (and blame) for something that’s not on you.
Along similar lines, there’s no reason to begin criticisms with “I’m sorry, but... .” If you’re having a disagreement with a co-worker or a problem with a subordinate, simply state the issue. “I’m sorry, but this report isn’t what I was looking for” doesn’t soften the blow—and it again turns the situation around on you. Be direct and put the responsibility back where it belongs: “This report doesn’t cover what we had previously discussed—can you revise it?” Even something as small as, “I’m sorry, but could you clean your spaghetti splatter out of the microwave?” sounds better without the prefacing apology.
(Side note: When college guy and I stopped seeing each other, I learned that those end-of-the-relationship conversations go better without the filler of, “It’s not you, it’s me,” too.)
3. Giving Pros and Cons (Instead of Your Recommendation)
Recently, after I had researched competitors’ offerings of a product my company was considering introducing, the leader of the team I was working with asked what my recommendation to those making the ultimate decision would be.
While I wanted to be able to make a solid case for pursuing a new product, I didn’t see it working out—but I didn’t want to be the one saying no. So instead of making a final call, I emailed him my list of pros and cons.
And yes, he’d asked for that list—but he also wanted a decision. And by not giving him one, I'd undermined my credibility. Sure, no one wants to be the killjoy who brings bad news, but you know what? It happens. And sometimes, it’s actually your job to deliver it.
If you consistently let someone else make the call before making up your own mind, you’ll look like the person who plays it safe, not smart, and simply follows the crowd. Next time I’m asked for a recommendation, I’m going to be sure to have an answer!
Do you play it safe by using wishy-washy language at work? How have you learned to overcome those tendencies?