April 14, 2024

Even the smallest, most ordinary phrases can have a big impact on the way people perceive you.

At a job interview, a few words can be the difference between you looking like a confident contender and someone unsure about their qualifications, for example. It’s important to choose your words carefully and use assertive language, say authors and communication experts Kathy and Ross Petras.

“The key is to be assertive without being overly aggressive,” the Petrases wrote for CNBC Make It last year. The strategy can be especially helpful when communicating with a boss, co-worker, friend or partner, they added.

These three phrases achieve the opposite goal, unintentionally making you seem weak and insecure, experts say:

‘I’m sorry to ask this, but…’

Saying “I’m sorry” can seem like a courteous thing to do, but overusing the phrase — especially in situations that don’t require an apology — can diminish the impact of what you say next, and make future apologies hold less weight.

“When you use apologetic words (e.g., “I’m sorry, I have one last question” or “Maybe it’s just me, but…”), it can sound like you’re putting yourself down,” the Petrases wrote. “Or it can downplay a request that you’re trying to make.”

Simply ask for what you want — “Can you please forward that email to me?” or “Could you help me mirror my laptop display?” — and close with a “thank you.”

‘I just…’

Saying “I just” also waters down anything follows it, says communication consultant Danny Rubin.

“‘I just want to ask you…’ ‘It’ll just take a minute…’ ‘I’m just saying…’ Weak. Weak. Weak,” Rubin wrote for Make It in 2018. “‘Just’ is a little word with big implications. Each time we use ‘just,’ it suggests we waste someone’s time. No, if you have something important to say, then say it.”

If you’re nervous or insecure during a meeting or conversation, changing a few words won’t change the way you feel. But you can prepare your mind for these situations by doing calming exercises like meditating, taking a walk, reciting affirmations or practicing breathing techniques, says HR executive Simon Taylor.

These can help you “overcome nerves and get grounded,” he told Make It last year.

‘I don’t know’

“I don’t know” is a common filler phrase, or crutch word, to fill space until people can complete their thoughts.

It can also make you look incompetent. 

Instead, say something like, “That’s a really interesting question. Give me a minute to think about that,” Eric Yaverbaum, CEO of public relations firm Ericho Communications, told Make It in February 2023.

This is especially true in job interviews, where you may get an unexpected curveball question.

“It’s easier to say, ‘I have no idea,’ when confronted with a problem than it is to try and offer a solution,” Yaverbaum explained. “Being calm and confident in your response tells an interviewer that you’re a team player and comfortable with problem solving, which are skills everyone wants in their employees.”

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