Five Things We “Just” Need to Stop Saying to be Influential

Tips from leaders on how to sell your ideas and boost your confidence

mattjeacock/Getty Images
mattjeacock/Getty Images

How many times have you been in a situation where you felt your voice wasn’t heard, or wondered why your idea didn’t get accepted? 

As leaders, we need to inspire, engage and influence others. If leadership is the culmination of many interactions and conversations, the words we use – and how we say them — can help or hurt us. 

Over the past few months, I’ve been conducting research with some of Canada’s most influential women for a book on leadership. Here are five tips these amazing women  shared to help others boost their influence and confidence.

1. Remove “just” from your vocabulary. The word ‘just’ has many variations. As an adjective, it means ‘guided by truth, reason or fairness’. As an adverb it means ‘within a brief preceding time’, or ‘only or merely’. Yet we use it constantly in our everyday language, as in “I was just going to say…’ which has the effect of devaluing our ideas before they’re even out of our mouth. One of the women I interviewed is incredibly passionate about this, to the point of obsession. Let’s mount a campaign to stop using ‘just’ in the wrong ways!

2. Speak without sounding apologetic. Very often, we want to make a strong statement but create doubt before the we’ve even voiced it. How many times have you said: “That’s just my opinion”. The next time you’re writing an email or speaking in a meeting, listen closely for this, or ask someone to give you feedback. Try “My opinion is” or say what you think — without a modifier. BOOM! Commit to your answer and deliver it with authority – don’t temper it. Own your ideas and be ready to engage in the dialogue that follows.

3. Control your tone of voice. It’s human nature to want people to share our opinions and perspective. However, when we make a statement and use upspeak, or uptalk, we appear as if we’re looking for approval, which creates doubt in the listener. A recent study examined the tone of voice people used to talk to others they viewed as high status or dominant. In an interview setting, people used a higher-pitched voice when being interviewed by someone they thought of as high status. Using upspeak can undermine your authority. Avoid ending your sentences in the upward tone of a question. Maintain an even tone, so that your confidence comes through. Deliver your responses with authority and firmness.

4. Remove ‘I think” from your speaking and writing. We’re very accustomed to using ‘I think’ to present a thought or opinion, but this is one of the phrases we clearly overuse. I’ve found that ‘I think’ is particularly rampant in my email communications, and now take time to review my emails and remove those two words before I send them. Research published in Harvard Business Review also shows that using ‘I think’ shows self-focus. This same research also shows that people who use ‘I think’ are perceived as lower in status. When you use ‘I think’ it makes you sound like you’re not fully committed to the answer. If you’re asked a question, instead of saying “I think we should do this…”, try “We should do this.” You’ll be amazed how much more powerful and confident you sound without it.

5. Stop using ‘female’ as a qualifier. Noting modifiers can also limit our influence as women. It’s hard to believe, but some of the leaders I interviewed still hear the word ‘girls’ used to describe them. Let’s not demark professionals as ‘female’ boss, ‘female’ doctor, ‘female’ lawyer – women aren’t secondary anymore or interlopers in business. Several of the women I interviewed also noted the tendency for women to undermine other women with words like bossy, in a negative way. In the UK, Telegraph Women compiled a list of words to avoid, including ambitious, emotional, and bitchy. One of my favorites in this list is ‘working mom’; as the Telegraph notes, you never hear the phrase ‘working dad’. The next time you are in conversation, consider if you would use those same words to describe a driven, passionate man.

Changing your language starts with believing in yourself. Nothing will change until you believe that you are as capable as anyone else in being right and have an opinion worth sharing. Let’s get on with it. Be accountable, choose your words carefully and consider the consequences of what you say and how you act. When you speak with authority, confidence and conviction, the world will listen.

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