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4 phrases that make you sound weak to your coworkers

Your word choices can build you up or tear you down. Here’s how to speak in a way that won’t discredit your confidence or ability to perform.

4 phrases that make you sound weak to your coworkers
[Source photo: exopixel/iStock]

For women in the workplace, fighting implicit gender biases is a constant struggle. Due to baked-in stereotypes, they battle against the unconscious assumption that women are less talented and capable than men. The problem is that when women conform to these stereotypical characteristics, they are viewed as likable but too “soft” for leadership; and when women flout female stereotypes and behave in agentive and masculine ways (such as expressing decisiveness and forcefulness), they are often viewed as too “hard” to be likable.

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Together, we have written extensively about how women can navigate this dilemma, find ways to be “just right,” and avoid or overcome the discriminatory consequences of gender bias. In our book, Breaking Through Bias, we present a variety of communication techniques women can use to increase their career success despite the presence of gender bias in their workplaces.

But wholly apart from the positive steps women can take to counter gender bias, there are a number of things they should not do—chief among them is using words and phrases that reinforce gender bias. Here are some key examples of these linguistic missteps and the reasons they should be banished from your vocabulary.

1. “Like”

The use of “like” in superfluous ways has become ubiquitous among young women and girls. And even in the workplace, women going after career advancement can frequently be heard using the word to punctuate their statements, such as, “We, like, should pursue that plan,” or “Is this, like, a necessary step to take?”

Some linguists believe that the use of “like” in grammatically unnecessary ways functions as a tool for building relationships and softening what otherwise might be hard-edge impressions. Nevertheless, we have not found a single example of the grammatically superfluous use of “like” by a Fortune 500 CEO, a senior academic older than 45, or a U.S. military general.

In serious career situations, the superfluous use of “like” risks undermining your impression as a confident, competent, and forceful person and risks making you appear juvenile, tentative, and even irritating. In other words, the grammatically unnecessary use of the word “like” undermines your efforts to present yourself as ready for leadership. Drop it.

2. “Just”

“Just” is another, often superfluous, word that can undermine your efforts to avoid or overcome gender biases. For example, when you say things such as, “I just think,” “I just need,” or “I was just checking on,” you appear uncertain and confused. Indeed, the frequent use of “just” conveys a subtle message of subordination, deference, and self-effacement. It weakens your message and undermines the impression that you have confidence, control, and knowledge.

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Your message will be much clearer and more forceful without the use of “just.” Consider, “Do you have a moment?” or “When you have a moment, I’d like to discuss this with you”; and “I want to check on this.”

With these phrases, you are presenting yourself as strong and assertive, not tentative or deferential, as when you unnecessarily drop “just” in your vocabulary.

3. “You know”

This phrase is a filler phrase, similar to “um,” “er,” “ah,” “basically,” “I mean,” “so,” and “okay.”

Most people use filler words and phrases from time to time, but there is a reason that professional speakers are trained to avoid them. Filler words and phrases undercut your ability to project an image of competence, authority, and confidence.

An example of how off-putting the use of “you know” can be, here is Caroline Kennedy’s reply to a question from a reporter at the New York Daily News about whether she believed that President George W. Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy should be repealed. Kennedy replied, “Well, you know, that’s something, obviously, that, you know, in principle and in the campaign, you know, I think that, um, the tax cuts, you know, were expiring and needed to be repealed.”

Indeed, during the period she was seeking to be appointed to the Senate seat being vacated by Hillary Clinton in 2008, Kennedy used the phrase “you know” more than 200 times in 30 interviews with the Daily News. Therefore, she consistently came across as inexperienced, uncertain, and lacking in both knowledge and confidence. It came as no eventual surprise she did not receive the appointment.

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If you regularly say “you know” or use other filler words or phrases, work hard to break the habit. Whenever you catch yourself about to use a filler word or phrase, pause, take a breath, and then proceed. Next, try to memorize, then recite, fairly lengthy written passages, which can get you in the habit of speaking without filler words.

4. “Feel”

Using emotional language can prevent you from appearing forceful, direct, and competent. Think about the impression you would make with the following statements:

  • “I feel good about this design development.”
  • “I don’t feel good about the acquisition.”
  • “I feel we are paying too much for that property.”

All of these statements are about emotions, not beliefs, judgments, or sound conclusions. What you “feel” about a workplace decision is irrelevant; what matters is what you think about it and why. Emotion-based language plays directly into the widely held gender stereotype that women are emotional and unfocused versus logical and decisive.

Instead of using emotion-tinged language, use strong action words when expressing your ideas or asking questions. Stay away from vague emotional verbs such as “feel,” “want,” and “need.” You should think and speak about the issues you face in a direct, careful, logical manner. Try to pursue clarity over emotion, strength over feelings, and conciseness over effusiveness.

The main takeaway

The way in which you speak is one of your most important tools for presenting yourself as the forceful, clearheaded, talented leader you are. Don’t allow verbal missteps to work against this objective. Workplace gender bias does not need to be reinforced by the use of “like,” “just,” “you know,” and “feel.” There are many other ways you can convey your warmth and likability without undermining your credibility. Drop weak, superfluous, grammatically unnecessary, and emotional language. By doing so, you will have taken a major step toward assuring the impression other people have of you is the impression you want them to have.


Andrea Kramer and Alton Harris are communication and gender bias experts and the authors of Breaking Through Bias: Communication Techniques for Women to Succeed at Work and It’s Not You, It’s the Workplace: Women’s Conflict at Work and the Bias That Built It. They have spent more than 30 years helping women advance in their careers through writing, speaking, and mentoring.

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