When I’m coaching leaders, it’s not unusual for me to jump in and make a real-time vocabulary correction. It may seem strange to do such an elementary exercise with executives with MBAs and elevated levels of education, but word choice in both business and life are important. Yet, leaders are often unconscious of the impact their word choice has on others and on their intention to drive effective results. Below is my list of 10 ineffective, at times even offensive, words that I tend to swoop in and correct. 

While perusing the following 10 words I invite you to actively: 

  • identify the ones you tend to use or overuse,
  • identify the ones that trigger any strong emotion,
  • pick one word from (a) or (b) to focus on,
  • practice catching yourself in the moment, and
  • restate differently.

While I am not suggesting you eliminate all these words from your vernacular, I would like you to become more acutely aware when you use them so that you can limit or replace them and become a more effective communicator.  

  1. Always
  2. Never

These two words can be triggering, meaning they elicit an emotional reaction. If you say, “You always…” or “You never….” to a colleague, employee or even your spouse, it will likely trigger defensiveness. There is a cognitive bias associated with these two words, and it is usually emotionally laden. 

Using these words can often incite an argument. If someone hears them applied to their performance, work ethic, punctuality, or really any behavior in the workplace, it usually does not feel good. They can feel personally attacked. 

Both words also lack specificity and are rarely accurate – even if they may feel accurate when using them. They induce a generalized viewpoint that lacks nuance, which can reduce hope and motivation in the recipient, so there is little place for them in effective leadership or interpersonal conversations. 

3. Should

I have a strong dislike for the word “should” and I hope you do as well because it lacks the fire to motivate or inspire. When we say to ourselves or others we should do something, it already conjures up a lack of wanting to do it. There is an inherent resistance to this word as soon as you say it. Worse, it can cultivate feelings of guilt and shame.

The simple act of replacing the word “should” with “must” is far more powerful and effective. 

It creates a sense of urgency and is more likely to facilitate action. 

4. No 

While no one likes to hear the word “no,” we can all agree that an important part of a leader’s job is to say no. What’s important is how you say “no.” You can decline something without using the harsh word of “no.” In doing so, you resist being perceived as rigid, a naysayer, someone who leads with negativity, etc. Instead, train yourself in those moments to (a) get curious and seek to understand or (b) offer more context for the situation at hand (i.e. why it needs to be deprioritized, is out of alignment with the overarching vision, etc.)

There are some people who repeatedly lead with a “no” without processing all the implications. It’s reflexive. It takes very little effort. A quick “No” makes the situation or problem temporarily go away and will ensure the status quo. Nothing moves forward after a “No.” Change and transformation are unlikely. This is a favorite strategy of many leaders, especially those who are SME’s who come from “I already know… and know best” or those who are just uncomfortable with change. Others can mistakenly see it as a display of being powerful. 

Often those executives get the reputation of being controlling, inflexible and unable to adapt. What is even more powerful is a leader who is an active listener and open to possibilities. Even if the answer really is “No,” it’s an opportunity to question your assumptions and explore the situation deeper. You might even learn something, and your “No” becomes a “Yes!”

5. You/You’re

You and You’re are usually not the best words to start a sentence with. Opening with this simple pronoun can immediately put someone on the defensive and ignite an emotionally triggered listener or response. That’s certainly not how you want to open a conversation. 

Worse still is if you unwittingly follow those words with ungrounded assumptions, accusations, or advice. A more open conversation can be had by coming into the situation by opening with a softer, inquisitive question. Example: Instead of, “Your work product was incomplete again. It didn’t include half of what I asked for.”  Ask, “Hey, I’m wondering if you got my email yesterday that outlined the new instructions for the XYZ project?” Note: She didn’t. It’s sitting in your drafts folder! Enough said.

6. Why

Why is such a great question that you may be surprised it is on this list. It’s included simply because of its repeated overuse. The word “why” needs to be used judiciously and tactfully. Just like you do not want to hear a toddler say “why” to your every answer, you do not want to hear that question insistently in meetings. Both cases are extremely annoying, and I have worked with leaders before who ask “why,” – literally use the word why to every response given – to a fault.  

However, when used well and thoughtfully, why is one of the most powerful words in language because it forces you to stop, ponder and question what lies underneath.  If you keep going deeper, layer after layer, you eventually get to the core issue.

However, when used repetitively for all scenarios and it becomes your leadership “brand” – it will likely lose its power and people may even start avoiding you. A better way to get the same result is to conversationally mix it up and find new ways to ask “why.”  For example, instead of “Why?” say, “It’s obvious that you assess Project XYZ is very important to take on. I don’t see it as important as you do. Help me understand what context or perspective I might be missing.” 

7. Whatever

I know Gen X grew up using the term “whatever” in the 1990s, but did you know it first came to popularity in the 1970s from the TV show All in the Family? The character Archie Bunker used “whatever” a lot to dismiss his wife, Edith. Just like then, it is a dismissive and passive term. I personally find it offensive because it displays indifference and a lack of engagement. There is simply no place for it in leadership. 

8. Can’t

Can’t is another word that is often untrue, especially when you say something “can’t” be done. Now there are certainly times when “can’t” can be used in business, especially when there are negative consequences to the individual, team, or organization or the behavior is outside of company policy. “No, you can’t make that trade – it will lead to an investigation by the SEC.”

But when an employee brings you an idea and you say it “can’t” be done, that could be deflating, undermine progress and may end up being untrue. Instead, probe more with questions:

  • Tell me what you’re thinking. You’ve piqued my interest.  
  • Interesting. Help me understand how you are looking at the situation, because we are definitely looking at that problem from “very different lenses and perspectives.”

This is where the creative businessperson excels – instead of listing the reasons why an idea cannot be implemented, you look to solve it in diverse ways. Explain why the solution may be difficult to execute and approach the situation with ideation. Your employees do not want to hear “can’t,” they want to hear “how can we?”

9. Fault

When you use the word “fault,” you are looking to blame instead of solving.  First, focus your lens on a solution and then you can break down the situation:

  • How did this problem happen?
  • How can we ensure it does not happen again?
  • What were the gaps that we missed?

A leader should not look for a scapegoat or point fingers at others. This is a true lack of accountability, because from my radical philosophy lens, everyone should be looking in the mirror when a problem happens. How could you have prevented it? That should start with the leader applying that lens and that lens be modeled and trickled down to the rest of the organization. 

10. Try

Try is a pet peeve word of mine. Anytime I hear the word try or I hear myself use the word try – I cringe. Stop in your tracks when you use this word. Why would you weaken your resolve? You are either going to commit to delivering the result or not commit. By using the word “try,” you are setting yourself up with an out and already signaling to yourself or others a lack of commitment. It’s almost a guaranteed failure right at the start. You are essentially saying, “Maybe… If I get around to it…If I feel like it.” 

Try is a word that at its core lacks accountability. People often use this word when they are overwhelmed, afraid they can’t or won’t deliver, or are concealing they don’t want to do it.  They opt for a vague conditional agreement right up front. However, there is an easy way to embody commitment while hedging.  If you are hesitant to commit because of a looming circumstance outside of your control, then say it. “I can commit to completing the annual sales report by the end of the month unless the acquisition which is targeted to occur in two weeks starts to go south and there’s a need for “all hands-on deck.” Giving clear parameters for a conditional agreement is an acceptable response. It will deepen interpersonal trust and won’t damage your brand when you are not able to deliver because the circumstances you anticipated occurred.    

While I know it’s not possible to catch or eliminate all these words from your vocabulary, I do hope you take away the power of words. Whether it’s building mindfulness around choosing effective words to communicate or building your emotional intelligence vocabulary to accurately describe your feelings, emotions and moods – words matter. It’s all part of becoming self-aware, an underrated and overlooked foundational skillset that will take you and your leadership to another level. 

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