Changing our language to change our influence ​

Mar 19, 2021

"Sorry to bother you, but can I just ask you to read this article?” Using qualifiers like this reduces the impact of the message. So why do we use them so much? Dawn Leane asks us to re-evaluate the way we inadvertently undermine ourselves through conversation.

‘I just wanted to ask…’ ‘Can I just check..’ ‘Sorry to bother you…’

Take a moment to reflect on your most recent conversations and emails. How many of these qualifiers have you used in the last few days?

We often fail to realise the impact – or lack of impact – associated with the use of qualifying words.

Do not ‘think’ or ‘feel’ – ‘know’

When we use words like ‘just’, we undermine our message. Think about it – you receive an email that reads: “I just wanted to check that you have sent that letter.” What level of importance does the recipient attach to that message? The ‘just’ implies that it is not particularly important. If you consult a thesaurus, you will find the synonyms for ‘just’ are ‘only’ ‘merely’ and ‘simply’ – inaccurate words for the intended tone of the email.

Compare that sentence to this: “Can you please confirm that letter has been sent?” Which carries greater authority and has more impact?

When we ‘think’ or ‘feel’ that a particular course of action is appropriate – for example: “I feel our clients would prefer this option”, we are diluting our message and losing credibility in the process. When we ‘believe’ or ‘know’ – “I believe this option will be a better fit with our clients” – that creates a much stronger impression.

An unnecessary question at the end of a statement can have the same effect. Sometimes the statement can be strong – ‘That was a great meeting’ – but when we add ‘wasn’t it?’ it diminishes our conviction.

Changing the habit

All too often, I see women undermine themselves in this way. Of course, while some men also use this language, in my experience (see what I did there), women are far more likely to use qualifiers as we are conditioned to be apologetic for our achievements, knowledge and for having strong opinions. The culmination of our experiences may make us unconsciously believe that we are not deserving of someone’s time or attention. There is also a strong cultural dimension to this behaviour.

The harsh truth is that we teach people how to treat us. If we are constantly apologising, questioning or qualifying, we are perceived as being uncertain, lacking in confidence and weak.

Try this experiment: for one week re-read all important emails that you draft before hitting the send button. Remove the words and phrasing that diminish your message. This can feel a little uncomfortable at first – all real growth does. I liken it the first time I wear a new pair of trainers – the more often I wear them, the less conscious I am of how they feel. You probably won’t get your language correct every time, but you will begin to notice and change this habit.

I’ll finish with a quote from one of my favourite books, Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott:

“Yes, the conversation is the relationship. One conversation at a time, you are building, destroying, or flatlining your relationships.”

Dawn Leane is the Founder of Leane Leaders and Leane Empower.