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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

4 Very Common Words That'll Give Your Co-workers a Heart Attack

You pride yourself on having good communication skills. You keep your co-workers looped in and apprised of what’s going on at all times.

But did you know that a few (very common!) words could actually be causing your beloved colleagues to freak out? It’s true: Certain terms that you might use regularly make people think fire drill, resulting in an almost visceral response.

Read on for the four words that actually scare your colleagues (and what to say instead).

1. Except

Before you think I’m writing this from atop a perfect word usage pedestal, let me start with one I recently used. I was messaging my manager about an upcoming project and I wrote, “It looks great, except…” To which her immediate response was to suggest I write an article on “five words that send chills down your spine.”

Except is a word that says you would’ve gotten the job or the influential person would have funded your idea—but there was just one little thing that made that not happen. It’s the shorthand for, “so close, and yet, so screwed.” Whenever someone starts a sentence with a victory, and then drops the except bomb, you instantly start preparing for disaster.

So, save your co-workers that emotional rollercoaster. Rather than structuring your update as “good news—except…” lead with what needs to be fixed so there aren’t any surprises. For example, instead of: “The report looks good, except for points three through five,” you’d say, “The report would be stronger if we reworked points three through five (more on that below), but otherwise it looks great!”

2. Problem

Sometimes you need assistance immediately. This obviously includes anything involving the health and safety of the people on the premises. And it also covers grey areas (like that time I started a fire in the microwave in the break room). Or the start of so many rom-coms where the lead character is fired for setting in motion a series of events that will cost his or her (former) company millions of dollars.

The point is: You know the difference between a problem and dealing with an annoying co-worker or a looming deadline.

No, I’m not saying that you’re banned from using the word problem in the office. But what I am saying is if you’re constantly coming to your team with “problems,” people will start to think you’re easily overwhelmed, and therefore, too busy for exciting, new opportunities.

So save problem (and its soul sisters: “situation,” “emergency,” and “issue”) for when it’s something serious and you need someone’s assistance right this minute. The rest of the time, talk about what you’re working on, the obstacles you’re facing, and where you could use ideas or feedback.

3. Urgent

Muse writer Adrian Hopkins summed it up perfectly: “When time is short and the pressure is high, ‘urgent’ is a word that can only produce panic...If it truly is urgent, make a phone call or in-person visit instead [of sending an email].”

Urgent isn’t only something that scares teammates: Like problem, if you use it too often, it can get a little Boy Who Cried Wolf. If you send an urgent email once a day, your colleagues might take your emails with a grain of salt—not at all what you’d want when you actually need help urgently.

And when it comes to email subject lines, Hopkins recommends that in lieu of writing “urgent” you go with “today.” I’ve taken that advice and found it to be much more effective in getting the response I want.

4. Wait

Wait is a command. If someone shouted, “Wait!” at the very moment I sent an email, I would immediately take the steps to recall it—even if I later found out she was talking to the person sitting next to me. I would stop whatever I was doing for fear of making some kind of horrible mistake.

Therefore, “wait” is super-effective if you want someone to pause and focus all of his attention on you. But other uses of wait, like the casual, “Wait—what?” (Translation: “That’s surprising!” or “Tell me more!”) is better reserved for the co-worker who knows exactly what you mean.

If you’d like someone to look up, but it’s not pressing, try, “Do you have a moment?” or “Is this a good time?”

Yes, when you are met with a difficult problem or something that shocks you, it’s only natural to use concerned language. However, if you manage to use focused, even language you’ll be seen as someone who always has solutions (not problems).

Photo of woman freaking out courtesy of Shutterstock.