Episode 34: What You Say Can Hurt You


Have you ever had a slip of the tongue?  Put your foot in your mouth?  Or had that moment when we wish we could take back something we’ve said? 

Communication experts agree that our vocabulary contains many word traps that can impact how we are perceived by others and destroy our credibility. 

What is interesting is these words are so commonplace, you may not notice it but it can instantly trigger negative reactions from your listeners. 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: 



Do you often use the word “you” followed by a criticism or critique when you talk to those around you?  Doing this leaves your listeners with the impression that you’re pointing the finger at them and can instantly trigger a negative response. Instead, it is recommended that you replace you with I. Saying, “I really feel that this project wasn’t as successful as it could have been,” instead of “You didn’t complete this project properly” completely changes the meaning of the message and is more likely to elicit a positive response from the listener.   

“So by changing you to I, you’re taking accountability and saying ‘this is my perception’ rather than saying ‘this is fact.’” 




Do you often answer a question with perhaps, maybe, soon, possibly?  These words cannot only be annoying to the receiver, but gives the impression that you are uncertain and incapable of committing; perhaps even weak. People want leaders who are decisive. If asked if you are done with a project, for example, and respond with “almost” it leaves the listeners confused.  After all, “almost” can have various meanings for different people. It may mean you will finish that day or it could mean you are days away.  “It shows you don’t want to be tied down to an answer. Almost is non-committal.  Replace this hedging word with a precise answer, such as “I’ll have it to you by close of business tomorrow.” 

The words “I Think” is another word trap that can be damaging to your reputation. If I asked if a solution will work or not to which you respond “I think.” What I heard was “I have no clue.” That can leave a poor taste lingering, especially if I am already on the fence about your abilities. A simple yes or no will get you much farther and earn you more respect.  Even if the answer is no, you can add that you will do research and get a concrete answer by a specific time.  As a successful entrepreneur, I have learned if you don’t know the answer, don’t say I think because its as bad as assuming, because it can and will make an ass out of you and me.  Simply say yes or no, and if no, I will get back to you with a definitive answer. 



We should eliminate the word “but” from our vocabulary, replacing it with “and” instead. I had to personally work diligently on the use of shoe dropping words personally and professionally.   Anytime people hear the word but, they hear the shoe is going to drop. How many of you have experienced one of these scenarios: your Doctor calls you to review the results of your physical; she starts off by saying the majority of your vitals are good but there is one I need to talk to you about or  you are called to a meeting to recognize the achievements of your team. They start off by saying “You did a great job, you worked hard, but next time we need to do better.” Will anyone remember the first part of that sentence? Chances are the only thing you heard was “I want more from you.” “The word but throws out the first half of the message.   



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. 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. 



A team of researchers – Ewa Kacewicz, James W. Pennebaker, Matthew Davis, Moongee Jeon, and Arthur C. Graesser — studied the use of pronouns by individuals in a variety of contexts. Their theory was that pronoun usages (first-, second- or third-person and singular versus plural) could provide clues to an individual’s status inside a group or a hierarchy and possibly their likelihood of attaining higher status. 

Pronouns help to signify a speaker’s focus of attention. When people feel insecure, self-aware, or diminished, they are more likely to focus their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors inward. Indeed, studies suggest that people manipulated to focus inward often increase the rate of first-person singular pronouns (such as “I,” “my,” or “me”) used in their speech. By contrast, the researchers theorized that individuals using first-person plural and second-person (such as “we,” “us,” or “you”) ought to demonstrate an outward focus, considering the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of others. 

In addition, researchers suggest that an outward focus is an important requirement of those who hold or look to attain, status. Status in a group is often conferred or legitimated by the group being led. Because of this, they theorized, individuals who demonstrate a strong focus on the group and its members (instead of on themselves) often attain higher status. Those who are self-focused would get looked down on, regardless of whether they held positions of authority. Perhaps the pronoun was a small, but potent, signal to others. 

To test these assumptions, the researchers designed five separate studies in which language was used in a variety of contexts, but all in situations with status differences between the people communicating. In the first study, participants were placed in four-person groups with a randomly chosen leader and given a decision-making task. In the second and third, two-person teams were either given a series of problems to solve or tasked to talk informally through an online chat forum (and later self-reported their assessment of status relative to the other person). In the fourth study, nine volunteer participants submitted their email correspondence with up to 20 other individuals and self-reported their status relative to each individual. The fifth study was perhaps most interesting; the researchers collected 40 letters written by soldiers in the Iraqi military under Saddam Hussein (obtained through the Iraqi Perspectives Project). Half of these letters were written from higher ranked officers to lower ranks and half by lower ranked to higher ranked officers. 

In their analysis of all five scenarios, published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, the researchers found surprisingly consistent results. Individuals with lower status overwhelmingly tended to use first-person singular pronouns (“I”) compared to individuals with higher status. Likewise, higher status individuals used significantly more first-person plural (“we”) pronouns relative to those with lower status (the only exception to the “we” effect was found in the fourth study, of natural use emails and self-reports of status). Second-person pronouns (“you, your”) also appeared more frequently in the language of high-status participants in all five studies, though the effect was weaker than “we.” 

The studies’ results imply that higher-status individuals do demonstrate an “others-orientation” significantly more than lower status individuals. Likewise, lower status individuals appear more self-oriented. All five studies were correlational, so it’s difficult to tease out whether an others-orientation was a cause of rising status or a simple result of operating at a higher status. In either case, however, the studies’ results underscore the importance of an others-focus for those seeking to rise in their organizations. 

While switching from singular “I” to the plural “we” may not make you a king or win you a premiership, it might help shift your perspective from self-focused to others-focused, make you more aware of the needs of others and, as you work to meet those needs, might just make you a better leader. 

The words we use impact us in all areas of our lives; when used properly they can bring us wealth and when used improperly can bring us destruction.     Remember Proverbs 18:21 – The tongue can bring death or life. Be sure to choose life in your use of words.


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