A slip of the tongue? A foot in your mouth? We’ve all had those moments when we wish we could take back something we’ve said.
While many of us recognize these communication faux-pas, communication expert Dr. Loretta Malandro, author of the new book Speak Up, Show Up, and Stand Out says our vocabulary contains many word traps that can negatively affect the way we’re perceived by others and destroy our leadership credibility.
These words are so commonplace, they’re infrequently noticed by the speaker but can instantly trigger negative emotional reactions in the listener. This is especially true in high-stress situations or where there’s a lack of trust, causing sensitivity to these word traps to be heightened.
Some of the most common word traps include:
Using the word “you” followed by a criticism or critique leaves the listener with the impression that you’re pointing the finger and can instantly trigger a defensive response. Instead, Malandro recommends replacing you with I. Saying “I really feel that this report wasn’t as complete as it could have been,” instead of “You didn’t complete this report properly” completely changes the meaning of the message and is more likely to elicit a positive response from the listener. “By changing you to I, you’re taking accountability and saying ‘this is my perception’ rather than saying ‘this is fact,’” says Malandro.
Answering a question with perhaps, maybe, soon, possibly or ASAP can not only be annoying to the receiver, but gives the impression that the speaker is uncertain and incapable of committing; perhaps even weak. “We want leaders who are decisive,” says Malandro. If asked when you will finish a project, for example, responding with “soon” leaves the listener confused. After all, soon can have a different meaning for different people. It may mean the end of the day to one person or it can mean next week to someone else. “It shows you don’t want to be tied down to an answer. It’s non-committal,” says Malandro, who recommends replacing hedging words with precise answers, such as “I’ll have it to you tomorrow.”
The word try is another word trap Malandro says can be particularly damaging to one’s reputation. Imagine this scenario: your boss approaches you with a task to which you respond “I’ll try.” What your boss heard was “I’m not promising anything.” That can leave a poor taste lingering, especially if your boss is already on the fence about your abilities. A simple yes or no will get you much farther and earn you more respect.
Malandro says we should eliminate the word “but” from our vocabulary, replacing it with “and” instead. “Anytime people hear but, they hear the shoe is going to drop,” says Malandro. Imagine this scenario: you call a group meeting to recognize the achievements of your team. You start off by saying “You did a great job, you worked hard, but next quarter we need to do better.” Will anyone remember the first part of that sentence? Chances are the only thing your team heard was “I want more from you.” “The word but throws out the first half of the message,” says Malandro.
Malandro says words such as “everybody” and “nobody” are frequently used inappropriately, and with disastrous consequences to one’s credibility. “There are very rare situations where you can accurately use a generalization,” she says. While it may be true that the majority of employees are showing up late for work, confronting staff by saying “nobody here comes to work on time” means those few employees who actually do come to work on time will feel unacknowledged for their efforts and may experience a drop in morale and enthusiasm for their job as well as a loss of respect for their boss, as generalizations can make one appear to be overly dramatic and cause them to lose credibility as a leader.