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16 Things I Forbid You to Say at Work

Our words matter, so use them wisely.

Randi Braun is an executive coach, consultant, speaker and the founder of Something Major.

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Randi Braun
Randi Braun is an executive coach, consultant, speaker and the founder of Something Major.

A leader at a startup recently came to me with a problem: the team had just brought their first woman onto the leadership team (don’t even get me started on that…) and she was absolutely fantastic.

So, what was the problem?

Even though she was consistently making the most compelling points in every meeting they held, she was constantly putting herself down before and after raising those points with statements like: “you’ve probably already thought of this” or “I’m no expert.”

Could he give her feedback, he wondered? Should he give her feedback, he asked me? My answer was yes and yes!

But my bigger concern was that this remains all too common for women at work. Even for women in positions of leadership — if they can make it that far without these self-sabotaging bad habits holding them back — as he was observing first-hand.

That’s why I’ve compiled this list of 16 things I absolutely, positively forbid you to say at work.

Forbidden when sharing your ideas:

1. You’ve probably already thought of this…

2. Maybe I’m missing something…

3. This might be a dumb idea…

4. You all know more about this than I do…

5. Have we thought about….? (PRO TIP: phrasing your awesome idea as a question is like passing the ball to let somebody else score a slam dunk off your shot)

6. I’m no expert but…

7. Using “we” instead of “I”

8. You all have been working on this longer than I have….

Forbidden crutch words:

9. Just

10. Actually

11. Maybe

12. I wanted to…. [your actual action item or point here]

13. Sorry

Forbidden when receiving praise:

14. It was nothing

15. Just happy to help

On emailing back 1 hour (or even one day—gasp!) later: 

16. Sorry for the delay

So, does it actually matter? 

Yes, so (so) much. Every email matters. Every conversation matters. Every word matters.

As research by Jessica Nordell demonstrates, women’s contributions are often valued 3% less than their male colleagues. As we look at the future of gender equity in the workplace, we’re not dealing with the blatant, macro-level “you can’t do it” discrimination of decades past, but unconscious bias: the micro-level, insidious discrimination of the present and future.

As Nordell explains in her recent New York Times article, This Is How Everyday Sexism Could Stop You From Getting That Promotion, even a “tiny” increase in gender bias, “leads to dramatic discrimination over time.”

That 3%, she explains, has a compounding impact. These micro gaps don’t just contribute to gender-based gaps in leadership scope, title and compensation, but actively create a drastic delta over time between men and women’s promotion potential and earning potential. Critical gaps that we know widen significantly for women of color.

UNFORTUNATELY, MILLIONS OF WOMEN GO TO WORK DAILY ON AN UNFAIR PLAYING FIELD. THAT’S WHY WHEN WOMEN STEP UP TO THE PLATE, I WANT TO MAKE SURE WE CAN SWING FOR THE FENCES.

Using hedging and crutch language is like intentionally hitting a single when our ideas and contributions could be a grand slam—or at least a double.  Here are a few suggestions to help break bad habits:

  • Just blurt: Seriously, I want you to practice just blurting your ideas. That means in a meeting, you can drop your disclaimers and just share your perspective. In an email you can get to the point with “I’m writing to follow-up on….” vs. “I just wanted to check in to see how things were going with….” Or, you can share your ideas in a statement instead of couching them in a question, which somebody else can scoop up and score points with as their idea.

  • Hit the delete button: Especially around your hedge words like “just,” “actually” or whatever softening crutch word is your personal kryptonite. In email, don’t send your note until you review it and actually hit that delete button on those hedges and crutches. In meetings, practice speaking up intentionally with a focus on (mentally) deleting these words from your talk track.  You can even try jotting down your talking points in advance if it helps or find a trusted ally in the room who can listen to you speak up and share feedback on how you sounded.

  • Say thank you: Had a great idea and got some recognition? Hallelujah! Now just say thank you. Don’t tell them it was nothing. Don’t use “we” instead of “I.” Simply say these two words: thank you.

  • Save sorry: For when you actually mean it (more on that here). Every time you say sorry when it’s unnecessary you are cutting yourself down. As Nordell’s research shows, this bad habit can limit your promotion potential and earning potential. Instead, you can say “thanks for your patience” or simply say nothing at all: seriously, 9 out of 10 times it’s a total nothing-burger that you responded to the email a little later than intended.

Final thought: don’t overthink it, rethink it.

We often overestimate the cost of our ideas being wrong, which is why we hedge or soften, and underestimate the cost this hedging does to our reputation and people’s perceptions of our competence, capability, and leadership. Our words matter, so use them wisely.


Randi Braun is an executive coach, consultant, speaker and the founder of Something Major.

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