“We see the world, not as it is, but as we are — or as we are conditioned to see it.”
This timeless quote by businessman and author Steven Covey reminds me that, as humans, we cannot help but interpret the world through our own, inevitably biased understanding. Objectivity is an illusion. Our perception is our only reality.
In the workplace, this lesson can have major implications for our careers. We tend to engage in patterns of behaviors that can result in our being dismissed, ignored, or not taken seriously. Always eager for self-improvement (OK, and after a little bit of griping), we turn quickly to investigating how this perception came to be.
In my experience with many thoughtful, extremely smart clients, I’ve noticed that an opportunity often exists to subtly (but effectively) improve this external perception. Specifically, eliminating “qualifiers” from their default language can help them achieve greater respect among their peers and superiors — without anyone even noticing the change.
Here’s What Happens
“Qualifiers” are phrases that self-impose and then reinforce the perception that your opinions — and by extension you — aren’t credible.
These qualifying words and phrases tend to sneak into our written and verbal communications without much conscious thought on our part. While harmless in isolated incidents, these “quick questions” and “sorry to bother you’s” can accumulate to eventually pigeonhole a person into a place of constant deference. Here are some other examples of qualifiers:
“Just checking in …”
“Sorry about that.”
“I think maybe we should consider …”
“Does that make sense?”
Basically, a qualifier is anything that sends the message that you’re unsure of your own thoughts or actions — that you need someone else to convince you what to do or say. Apologizing all the time encourages other people to think you’re excusable. Minimizing your ideas makes you seem small-minded. If you say you’re a “bother,” then people inuit you as bothersome. See the pattern here?
But Everyone Stay Cool
While the bad news is that our brains are wired to have biases like these and that our own bad habits are hard to break, the good news is that you don’t have to stop everything all at once — in fact, that would set off some major alarm bells to the people around you.
Instead, take things slowly. Don’t stop your behavior; adjust it. My two-step approach to any communication improvement is this: Change one small thing, and then watch how people react. In the case of qualifiers, if no one notices what you’ve changed, then you’re doing it right. Remember, we are shifting subconscious perceptions here!
Consider these suggested trade-ins for your go-to qualifiers:
“Just checking in …” —> “I’m checking in …”
“Sorry about that.” —> “Excuse me.”
“I think maybe we should consider …” —> “Let’s consider …”
“Does that make sense?” —> “Let me know if you have any questions.”
Be mindful as you go that these swaps aren’t needed all of the time. If you’re truly sorry about something, apologize. If you’re sincerely unsure, it’s OK to express doubt. (But “just” can almost always be avoided altogether. Cut. It. Out.)
The point here is to regain control over your language, as the messages you put out into the world. (The exclamation point in emails or texts, for example, is basically a font-formatted uptalk to let people know, “I’m not too serious! Everything is fine!” A wise mentor once shared with me his family rule on exclamation points: Use only one per email to be taken seriously.)
The bottom line here? Control your language so that it doesn’t control you. Your career will thank you in the long run.