Our words can be powerful tools to accomplish our goals. But sometimes the things we say can sabotage our success.
I have led, counseled, and mentored people for decades now. One thing I’ve noticed time and again is how much power our words possess.
Whether we’re speaking, blogging, selling, or debating, we rely on our words to pave the way to success. But they can also block our path if we’re not careful.
One way our words can block our path is using hurtful words against ourselves. It’s easy to think we’re immune from this, but that’s probably because we don’t realize how often we do it.
Another way is forfeiting power with our words. We frequently use words and phrases that undermine the strength of our statements. There might be good strategic reasons for using these words from time to time. But when we use them unthinkingly from habit, they not only damage our credibility, they also impair our efforts.
Here are three ways we give up power with words:
1. We Undermine Our Own Authority
How often do we couch our statements with nonassertive or supposedly humble lines like, “I’m no expert,” or “I not prepared to say anything, but…”?
I hear people do this all the time, and I’ve done it too, plenty. But this is just like handing over the keys to whatever authority we possess in that moment.
I know why we say these things. For one, they’re usually true. They also make us feel comfortable. By lowering the expectation of the audience, we lower the stress we feel in addressing them. But we don’t have to admit something just because it’s true or because it feels good—especially if it undermines us.
Using phrases like this gives our listeners and readers permission to check out and pay attention to someone whose words are more interesting, relevant, and useful than our own. How do they know our statements are uninteresting, irrelevant, or useless? Because we inadvertently told them so.
2. We Hedge Our Statements
If the world had a surplus of only one thing, it would be opinions. We’re drowning in them.
But some opinions are worth more than others. And one way we can unintentionally discount our own is to hedge and qualify them with phrases like “I think,” “I suppose,” or “This is only my opinion.” It’s like saying, “Feel free to disregard everything I just said.”
There might be moments where these phrases are appropriate. But as with No. 1, if we have anything worth saying, we shouldn’t prejudice our audience against it. And usually that’s what we’re doing when we hedge our statements. It’s like tagging our statements unimportant.
3. We Give Ourselves an Out
When we agree to a commitment by saying, “I’ll try” or “I’ll give it my best shot,” we’re saying the opposite. At least that’s what people usually hear.
The problem is that it not only undermines our credibility, it also lowers the chance we’ll make good on the commitment because it’s a subtle denial of our own agency.
I’ve sat in business reviews and heard executives and division leaders who faced very similar challenges. And I could tell you from their words who would pull it out and who wouldn’t. If one said “I’ll try,” the odds were almost certain he wouldn’t make it. On the other hand, someone who said “I’ll make it happen” usually would—or come very close. Why?
There’s nothing riding on the first statement. The second we say “I’ll try,” we’ve effectively done all that’s required. There’s no real commitment involved besides making the sounds, and without commitment our heart isn’t in the effort.
If we can’t commit, we should say as much and then express what we are prepared to commit to. But we shouldn’t use words that both hurt our credibility and hobble us before we start.
Our ability to persuade and instruct is only as effective as the words we use. And habitually using words that undermine our statements will only lessen the impact we hope to make.