I’m not here to tell you that you should never play it safe with your words. Whatever comes out of your mouth can’t be taken back, so you’re wise to measure what you say before you say it.
And yet – it’s possible to play it a little too safe.
Wishy-washy words don’t convey that you’re a seasoned professional, so you might be undermining yourself without even knowing it.
Let’s take a look at three common verbal pitfalls to avoid:
Asking Questions (Instead of Making Statements)
Have you ever noticed? That some people? Always sound? Like they’re asking a question?
This has been dubbed “uptalk,” and it refers to the tendency to add a little “lift” to your voice at the end of a sentence. Like the verbal equivalent of standing on your tiptoes when you’re the shortest person in the room. Stop it. You sound like you’re in junior high.
A subtler but no-less-harmful version is a tendency some people have to look for affirmation from listeners when they’re unsure about whatever they’re saying. This would include peppering your speech with, “Does that make sense?” or, “Do you agree?” or “Do you know what I mean?”
Once you get into this territory, you’re losing credibility and losing control of the conversation. Again: stop it.
Apologizing (When It’s Not Your Fault)
You should say you’re sorry when you’ve made a mistake. That’s it. That’s the only time.
If you’re apologizing for something that’s not your fault (your co-worker forgot the meeting you scheduled, someone stepped on your foot, the client is unhappy about something that’s totally beyond your control), then you’re taking responsibility for something you’re not to blame for – and undermining yourself in the process.
This one has a close cousin in the habit of saying “I’m sorry” as a preface for criticism or feedback. Like, “I’m sorry, but the figures you entered in this spreadsheet are incorrect, and you’ll have to re-do it.” Saying you’re sorry doesn’t soften the blow of giving feedback, it just makes you sound vaguely culpable. Be direct instead. If you’re communicating clearly and honestly, there’s no need for the mea culpa.
Giving Pros and Cons (Instead of Your Recommendation)
When you’re asked for your opinion at work, is your default response a list of pros and cons? I’m sure everyone’s impressed with your ability to offer a solid assessment of both sides of an issue, but I’m betting you were simply asked for your opinion.
Learn to recognize when you’re being invited to dialogue about something and when you’re being asked for a decision. And when it’s time to plant a flag, do it.
Be mindful of whether your hemming and hawing signals a reluctance to be the “heavy.” If your role calls for making the hard decisions or taking the occasionally unpopular stance, embrace that. That’s what they hired you for, right?
Maurice Gilbert is Managing Partner of Conselium Executive Search, which specializes in placing Compliance Officers and Legal Counsel for clients in the U.S., Europe, Latin America and Asia Pacific. Maurice is also CEO of Corporate Compliance Insights, a worldwide publication devoted to governance, risk and compliance issues. Maurice can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.