Words That Diminish Your Authority

As part of my exploration of the ways that women give away their power, I am intrigued by the way we communicate and what it tells other people.  Our communications are both non-verbal and verbal. In this article, we will investigate some of the things that people say every day that reduce their authority and influence at work and at home.

Our word choices that may have the unintended effect of ceding control and influence to the other party fall into four primary categories:

Indicating Self-Doubt

The most common of these phrases is probably “I think” which is, at best, redundant.  If you are saying it, it is obviously what you’re thinking.  But it also sends a message that your thoughts are not concrete or should not carry as much weight.  Equivalent phrases are “I believe” and “I feel” if used when one is not actually discussing one’s beliefs or feelings.  Other ways people indicate a lack of confidence include using the words “might” or “may.” Practice eliminating terms from your workplace vocabulary that call into doubt your confidence, capabilities, or expertise.

Indicating a Need for Permission or Approval

Can I ask if you’ve heard people making a question out of a statement? You have, right? Creating a question where there is no need for one shows a desire for someone else’s approval.  Asking “can I” puts the decision-making power into someone else’s hands about whether you are permitted or able to do something.  In most work situations, this is not necessary.  Even when asking for consent to do something, avoid using “can” as it asks whether you have the ability to do something, not whether someone agrees.  If your position and relationship with the other person make it appropriate to ask, use “may” or use the stronger statement of “I’m planning to” that the other person can respond to if they disagree with the course you’ve described. Also remember that sometimes (though not always!) it is better to ask for forgiveness than permission!

Indicating Lack of Importance

“I’m just wondering…” “It’s just a quick meeting…” The word “just” sneaks into our speech when we’re not looking for it.  Is it necessary in the context of the situation?  If you ask yourself this question each time you hear the word “just” pass your lips, you will find that there are very few times when you answer “yes.”  Similarly, “only” tends to show up in similar ways. 

Have you ever started a conversation with “I don’t want to bother you…”?  By saying so, you indicate that simply by talking to them, you assume that you are a bother.  You are therefore telling the other person that you are less important than they are.

Indicating “Wrongness”

An apology can be a powerful message, but only when you’ve actually done something wrong and you’re genuinely contrite.  In most cases these days, the words “I’m sorry” and “I apologize” are used when no apology is actually necessary.  Pay close attention to whether you’re using these in a way that indicates that you are in the wrong, when you are not. If someone is continually apologizing, they will not project an image of competence and confidence, and may start wondering why they’re hitting a ceiling or plateau in their career.

Such verbal mis-steps can put a brake on your career management, and slow down your progress toward the next step or level in your career. 

Being aware of the words you use and their true meanings is the first step toward speaking with authority, confidence and clarity.  When you interject words that you don’t actually mean, or which decrease your own authority, it muddies your message and is actually confusing to your listener. Your communication style should always match who you are and where you’re going in your life and career.  It should never be fake or “put on,” however, you can work to improve how you communicate so that your personal brand, message, and strengths shine through clearly.