Could Your Passive Communication Be Holding You Back?

May 30, 2017   |   Professional Development
Could Your Passive Communication Be Holding You Back?

Emails, texts, meetings, discussion threads — you communicate with people in a variety of ways each day. And no matter how much education you achieve, how you present yourself holds near equal weight in how far you can go professionally. So, it’s important to have good spoken and written communication skills as you work toward your career goals. Recently, Marla Tabaka of Inc.com highlighted some phrases to avoid when communicating with people if you don’t want them to perceive you as lacking confidence.1 She believes you should consider how removing these phrases from your vocabulary may help you appear more confident in school and work environments, and even help boost your confidence level. Here’s her list of seven phrases to avoid:

  1. I hate to bother you, but…
  2. I’m sorry.
  3. I’m worried.
  4. I’ll do it.
  5. I just…
  6. If it’s OK, would you mind…
  7. I believe/think/feel that…

Removing all seven phrases from your communications can be difficult, but if you’re a working professional, college student or recent graduate, you might want to focus on avoiding these three phrases.

I hate to bother you, but...

Have you ever used this phrase when you need to communicate with someone about something immediately? Even when you write an email or make a phone call, this can become a go-to phrase when it’s clear you might feel like you are interrupting or bothering someone. It’s uncomfortable to think you might be interrupting someone, but you should also consider if whatever you have to say and the response you’re anticipating is causing you to feel discomfort. What you really “hate,” according to Tabaka, is what you need to say. Are you asking for an extension on a project that’s due? Did you miss an assignment? Are you anticipating unpleasant outcome?

Tabaka notes, “This phrase puts the other person in complete control; it gives away your power.” Basically, you are deciding it’s “now or never” rather than giving yourself more time or seeing how soon the other person can be available to communicate with you. In situations where you are not sure if your timing is good, she suggests using this sentence, "When you have a minute, I would like to discuss something with you." Phrasing your request this way can help you determine a mutually agreeable time and place to speak and minimize the likelihood that you are interrupting someone. Also, it can give you more time to prepare what you want to say. Sending the request by email, text or chat board will work too if you feel it’s not a good time for a phone call or in-person chat.

I'm sorry.

It’s easy to slip into the habit of using “I’m sorry” even when you have nothing to apologize for. Tabaka notes, “Strong, confident people are willing to admit when they are wrong, or when an apology is in order. Weaker people use the words "I'm sorry" when they have feelings of inferiority,” but it seems there is a lot more going on than feelings of inferiority. One widely accepted gender stereotype is that women apologize more often than men, yet is this actually the case? In two studies examining if gender differences exist in apology behavior and if so, why, researchers found that, “Women reported offering more apologies than men, but they also reported committing more offenses. There was no gender difference in the proportion of offenses that prompted apologies. This finding suggests that men apologize less frequently than women because they have a higher threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior.”2 In the second study, researchers found that women were more likely to rate imaginary and recalled offenses as more severe than men, which increased the likelihood that a woman would judge that an apology was deserved and then engage in apology behavior.

Given these findings, you might believe apologies are necessary or unnecessary based on your gender and how you perceive actual or imaginary offenses. You might actually believe an apology is needed when someone else does not; however, people can use the phrase in other ways such as to sympathize with someone, to fill an empty conversational space, to interrupt or even to keep the peace.2 How do you figure out when and why you’re using “I’m sorry” in your communications? Tabaka suggests taking a day and logging when you use this phrase. Then, you can review those notes and consider if you needed to apologize and/or if you were actually feeling remorse at that time. You might find that you didn’t need to say “I’m sorry” because you didn’t do anything wrong and had no need to be sorry. It may be that you meant to say, “That’s frustrating/awful/upsetting,” “I’d like to add this/say this,” “Excuse/pardon me,” or maybe you didn’t even need to say anything at all.3

I just...

Tabaka calls this a filler phrase, and “each time you use this filler, it diminishes what you think and say.” Do you tend to begin sentences with this phrase when you speak, email or text?

"I just thought I could get an extension.”

"I just need you to look at this real quick."

"I just had this idea..." or “I just thought…”

To help yourself appear more confident, remove the “just” when you are making a suggestion, proposing an idea, sharing a concern, etc. This can lessen the chance that you might diminish yourself or your idea when communicating with others, according to Tabaka. Take a moment to think about the last few times you have used the word “just” and write down what you said. Now, cross out the “just” and review your statements. Hopefully, they appear more confident and direct.

Take a look at these two statements:

“I’m sorry. I hate to bother you, but I just need to review this draft/proposal/ with you.”

vs.

“When you have a few minutes, I need to review this draft/proposal with you.”

Our written and spoken words are how we communicate with people at home, school and work. With a little bit of reflection on your daily word choices, you can take steps that may impact your confidence levels and how people perceive you.

Looking for more tips that can help with school, interviews or career development? Check out more articles on CTU’s blog.


1. Tabaka, Marla. (2017, Feb 20). 7 Phrases That Scream Lack of Confidence (and Make You Look Weak). Retrieved April 27, 2017 from https://www.inc.com/marla-tabaka/7-phrases-that-scream-lack-of-confidence-and-make-you-look-weak.html?cid=readmoretext1

2. Schumann, Karina and Ross, Michael. (2010, Sept 20). Why Women Apologize More Than Men: Gender Differences in Thresholds for Perceiving Offensive Behavior. Psychological Science. Retrieved May 2, 2017 from https://web.stanford.edu/~omidf/KarinaSchumann/KarinaSchumann_Home/Publications_files/Schumann.PsychScience.2010.pdf

3. Paez, Tory. (2015, Mar 16). Five Things to Say Instead of “Sorry”. Retrieved May 2, 2017 from http://www.catalyst.org/zing/five-things-say-instead-sorry