The words we use matter

Evaluate the message you are communicating

Learn more about:

The language we use packs a lot of power, from the moment we wake up until we fall asleep again at the end of the day.

I don’t think we want to sound like robots, or have to take five minutes to answer even the simplest of questions. But I do think that it is a good practice to every now and then check up on our vocabulary to see if it is helping us get the outcomes we want, or getting in the way.

One phrase that can immediately create resistance is, “You have to understand…” Probably when we are just learning to walk, or maybe before, we develop a dislike for the phrase “have to.” “You have to pick up your toys before I read to you.” It does imply that the speaker is dominant in some way, knows more than we do, even may be getting impatient with us. Typically not the impression we usually want to send in business conversations.

- Advertisement -

My clients all know I cringe a bit in response to the word “but.” Most of us have been told something like, “Wow, you look great today…but that tie…” We tend to forget the wow part altogether and get stuck on the words after the “but.” “Yes, but” hardly ever works to keep us aligned in a conversation. It sounds like an argument is brewing; which is fine if that is your intent. “I want to meet your expectations but you know I don’t have enough staff.” Usually this kind of language is heard as just one more excuse.

If you see yourself in these examples, I suggest practicing a substitute word for “but.” “And” works well.

“Try.” I am solidly in alignment with Yoda when it comes to this word. “Do or do not. There is no try.”

- Advertisement -

“Can you join us on Tuesday morning for the team meeting?” “I will try.” Don’t wait for that person to show up. “I can’t make it” is a bit better. The listener usually hears “I won’t make it.” So why not use that language instead?

Lately in some of my own conversation, especially when I’ve expressed a compliment, the response has been, “I try.” My guess is that it flows from an intention to be modest. It does, however, come across as weakness instead of modesty.

Then that collection of phrases that go, “to be frank,” “to be perfectly frank with you,” “if I may be honest,” etc. The needle in my brain lifts out of the groove for a second to ask, honest versus what? I do not believe people using these phrases usually go around lying to me. Still, it is a little unsettling.

- Advertisement -

We can easily develop habits in our use of language; some really work for us and some send an unintended message. We may not notice our own language that has become habitual. It helps to ask for feedback from trusted friends or family members as part of your checkup. Or there is always the option of taping conversations, with permission of all concerned.

In my experience, close friends and/or family are pretty reliable reporters once they are sure there is no punishment for their honest feedback. Check yourself out. The reward may be more authentic communication and that is a gift that does keep on giving.

Sign up for the BizTimes email newsletter

Stay up-to-date on the people, companies and issues that impact business in Milwaukee and Southeast Wisconsin

What's New


Sponsored Content


Stay up-to-date with our free email newsletter

Keep up with the issues, companies and people that matter most to business in the Milwaukee metro area.

By subscribing you agree to our privacy policy.

No, thank you.
BizTimes Milwaukee