Ten Phrases That Should Be Banned from Your Workplace Vocabulary

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 25, 2020

By Darlene Price

I’ve learned a lot about effective communication through 20 years of working closely with top corporate executives and leaders to help them present themselves and their message more effectively.
Along with the positives—like getting to know your audience and tailoring your content to meet their needs—there are definite communication “don’ts” that can make or break your effectiveness.

To maximize your career success, banish the following 10 phrases from your workplace vocabulary:

  1. “I can’t do that” or “That’s impossible” or “That can’t be done.”
    Even though you may feel this way on the inside, these negative phrases are perceived by others as pessimistic, unconstructive, and even stubborn. Your boss, peers, and customers most likely want to hear what CAN be done. Instead say, “I’ll be glad to check on that for you” or “What I can do is…” or “Because of company policy, what I CAN do is…”
  2. “You should have…” or “You could have…” or You ought to have...
    The words “should”, “could”, and “ought” imply blame, finger-pointing and fault. There’s no quicker way to upset a boss, colleague, or customer than to suggest they’re guilty of something (even if they are). Instead, take a collaborative approach. Try: “Please help me understand why…” or “Next time may we adopt an alternative approach….” or “I understand your challenges; let’s resolve this together…”
  3. “That’s not my job” or “I don’t get paid enough for this” or “That’s not my problem.”
    If you’re asked to do something by your boss, co-worker, or a customer, it’s because it’s important to them. Therefore, as a team player, goal #1 is to figure out how to help them get it accomplished. Even if it’s not in your job description, saying so displays a career-limiting bad attitude. For example, if your boss lays an unreasonable request on you, reply by saying, “I’ll be glad to help you accomplish that. Given my current tasks of A, B, and C, which one of these would you like to place on back-burner while I work on the new assignment?” This clearly communicates priority, reminds the boss of your current work load, and subtly implies unrealistic expectations.
  4. “I may be wrong, but…” or “This may be a dumb question, but…” or “I’m not sure about this, but…” or “This may be a silly idea, but…”
    Eliminate any prefacing phrase that demeans or negates what you’re about the say. Instead, get rid of the self-deprecating phrase, drop the ‘but’, and make your comment.
  5. “I’ll try.”
    Imagine your boss says to you, “I need your proposal by 10 a.m. tomorrow for the customer meeting.” Your reply is, “Okay. I’ll try to get it finished.” The word “try” implies the possibility it may not get finished. It presupposes possible failure. Instead say, “I’ll get it finished” or “I’ll have it on your desk by 9 a.m.”
  6. “I think…”
    Which of these two statements do you find more effective? “I think you might like this new solution we offer” versus “I believe (or I’m confident) you’re going to like this new solution we can offer.”  The difference in wording is fairly subtle. However, the influence communicated to your customer can be profound. The first sentence contains two weak words, “think” and “might.” These words make you sound unsure or insecure about the message and subtly undermine your credibility. Notice how the second sentence is confident and strong. Replace the word “think” with “believe” and strike the tentative “might.” That’s a statement from someone who believes in what he or she saying.
  7. “…don’t you think?”  Or, “…isn’t it?” Or “…okay?” 
    To convey a confident commanding presence, eliminate validation questions. Make your statement or recommendation with certainty and avoid tacking on the unnecessary approval-seeking question. Don’t say, “This would be a good investment, don’t you think?” Instead say, “This solution will be a wise investment that provides long-term benefits.” Don’t say, “I think we should proceed using this proposed strategy, okay?” Instead, make a declaration: “We’ll proceed using this proposed strategy.”
  8. “I don’t have time for this right now” or “I don’t have time to talk to you right now.”
    Other than being abrupt and rude, this phrase tells the person they’re less important to you than something or someone else. Instead say, “I’d be glad to discuss this with you. I’m meeting a deadline at the moment. May I stop by your office (or phone you) in this afternoon at 3 p.m.? 
  9. “…but…”
    Simply replace the word “but” with “and.” “But” cancels and negates anything that comes before it. Imagine if your significant other said to you, “Honey, I love you, but . . .” Similarly, imagine if a software salesperson said, “Yes, our implementation process is fast, easy, and affordable, but we can’t install it until June. The “but” creates a negative that didn’t exist before, offsetting the benefits of fast, easy, and affordable. Replace the “but” with “and” and hear the difference: “Yes, our implementation process is fast, easy and affordable, and we can install it as early as June.” Most of the time, “and” may be easily substituted for “but,” with positive results.
  10. “He’s a jerk” or “She’s lazy” or “They’re stupid” or “I hate my job” or “This company stinks.”
    Avoid making unconstructive or judgmental statements that convey a negative attitude toward people or your job. This attitude can quickly tank a career. If a genuine complaint or issue needs to be brought to someone’s attention, do so with tact, consideration, and non-judgment. For example, when discussing a co-worker’s tardiness with your boss, don’t say, “She’s lazy.” Instead say, “I’ve noticed Susan has been an hour late for work every morning this month.” This comment states an observable fact and avoids disparaging language.

Remember, effective communicators use language that captivates, motivates, and persuades others. They take a position and state a point of view with words and phrases that strike at the very heart of an issue and shed light on the subject. Make sure the words you use illuminate, not negate, your message.

Learn more about Darlene Price’s book Well Said: Presentations and Conversations That Get Results (AMACOM, 2012).

Gain additional insight into how to communicate more effectively with these AMA’s seminars:

How to Communicate with Diplomacy, Tact, and Credibility

Moving Ahead: Breaking Behavior Patterns That Hold You Back

About the Author(s)

Darlene Price is the president and founder of Well Said!, Inc., a training and consulting company specializing in high-impact presentations and effective communication. Darlene has presented to thousands of audiences across six continents and coached the chief officers and senior executives in over half the Fortune 100 companies. She lives in Atlanta.