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Choose Wisely

November 16, 2019

Handle them carefully, for words have more power than atom bombs.

Pearl Strachan Hurd

-British Politician (1930s)

Appearances, behavior, tone of voice, and even words make an impression. Words can convey both confidence and insecurity. A recent New York Times op-ed by Molly Worthen, a history professor, discusses the tendency, especially among women, to use “linguistic hedging”. “Linguistic hedging” means using language that avoids taking a stand or saying something with confidence. Certain words or phrases can creep into your speech and undermine your authority.

There are some basic tips, for both women and men, that can give your words more power.

Words to Avoid

“I feel like”

Instead of qualifying your statement by saying, “I feel like . . .”, try using a more definitive phrase:

  • “The statistics suggest . . .”
  • “This graph demonstrates . . .”
  • “I read an article that said . . .”

Rather than saying “I feel like we’ve had more snow this winter”, for example, say, “A Chicago Tribune article stated we’ve had 150 more inches of snow than last year.”

“I’m no expert”

Avoid using qualifiers such as “I’m no expert in this, but . . .”. The use of such a qualifier weakens whatever you’re planning to say next. Qualifiers undermine your authority and discredit your skills and knowledge.

Rather than saying, “I’m no expert, but it seems like it’s going to rain,” for example, say, “It looks like it’s going to rain.”

“I think”

Saying “I think” also undermines your message. These are softening words, and while they make you sound like a team player, they also dampen your voice and expertise.

Rather than saying, “I think it’s going to rain,” for example, say, “It’s going to rain.”


Former Google executive Ellen Leanse suggests people stop using “just” as a “permission” word because it grants the person they are talking to more authority and control.

For example:

  • “I’m just following up on . . .”
  • “I’m just wondering if . . .”

Spend some time listening to yourself. You may find these are unconscious phrases that slip out all too often in your speech and in your writing. There’s even an app to help you. “Just Not Sorry” is a Gmail plug-in that warns you when you use words such as “just,” “I’m sorry,” “I think,” “Does that make sense?” “I’m no expert,” and “actually”. Tami Reiss, one of the founders, says that by checking in on the tendency to pad words, ideas, and questions, women (especially) will “sharpen their self-awareness to address workplace bias.”

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