Watch Your Language! Boost Your Effectiveness at Work by Eliminating these Three Words



This week on the blog, coLab member and leadership coach Karen Bowen gives us a primer on a few simple ways that you can improve communication with your team starting right now.

Words can often seem inconsequential in the moment. But what studies have repeatedly shown is that the words we use Matter. Our words are what allow us to foster healthy relationships, increase our personal well-being, and clearly communicate at work. So how can you be a more effective communicator? Start by nixing these three words from your vocabulary.

Eliminate “Don’t” to Get Unstuck

“Don’t” is a commonly used word that sets us up for inaction. There are competing schools of thought, but one theory says that the brain does a poor job of processing negative words like “don’t”. A statement to yourself or others that centers around a command of “don’t” creates focus on what you are trying to avoid. That focus gets translated to your subconscious brain and, in the words of Marga Gooren, “What you pay attention to is what you get.”

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: The more you say “don’t”, the more you get what you say you don’t want.

The end result of the word “don’t” leaves you, or others, stuck in a place of inaction. There is no way forward from a “don’t want”, you can’t live into a “don’t want”, and you can’t set a goal to achieve a “don’t want”.

So, what can you do? Communicate what you do want rather than what you don’t want. In business, this means that “Don’t forget that report is due Friday” could become “Remember the report is due Friday” or “Don’t forget to email that customer” becomes “Email [customer] to confirm interest”.

Replace “But” with “And” to Convey Clear Intent

The word “but” is problematic for a variety of reasons. When you use the word “but”, it negates everything you said before it. “But” also sets up an argumentative style and creates focus on what you say after the word “but”. We assume that what comes after the “but” is the real message someone wants to deliver. We have created mistrust in the workplace and in our relationships by mindlessly using “but” in our efforts to communicate.

Think of a time someone said something positive to you…did you anticipate the “but…”? Did you really even hear the first part of the sentence or were you distracted by what you thought was the real message?

To increase your communication clarity, replace the word “but” with “and”. This can be harder than it seems, as it requires mindful reflection on the message you want to deliver. If you practice this, your message will become clearer and more positive.

For example: “I really value your work, but it would help if you included more detail” becomes “I really value your work, and it would help if you included more detail”.

If you cannot replace “but” with “and”, check the intent and message you want to convey. Neurolinguistics research suggests that we are each responsible for the impact our communication has on others. Take responsibility of your impact by being aware and mindful with your use of the word “but”.

Let Go of “Shoulds” to Spur Action

You know what they say: Shoulda woulda coulda. Often with good intent, we use “should” when offering advice, or perhaps trying to create some motivation. While sometimes it can land lightly as guidance, most often “should” sets us up to be ineffective. “Should” can set unrealistic expectations, creates guilt, and decreases the desire to take action.

We spend our days thinking about what we “should” do, which causes guilt and judgement. The next time you find yourself thinking “I should…”, ask yourself why do you feel you “should” and get clear on this. Is this something you really want to do? Be mindful of your impact on others when you suggest someone “should” take a specific action. The effect on others is the same: Guilt increases, motivation decreases, and resentment builds. We “should” all over ourselves and others all day.

To combat this and move towards personal health and positive relationships, translate the “shoulds” into “wants” – or perhaps choose to let them go. Notice when you say “should” and pause to explore your intent. Be mindful of yourself and of others. Eliminating “shoulds” in your self-talk supports you in being personally empowered. Translating “shoulds” towards others relieves guilt, obligation and resentment to sustains positive relationships.

It Isn’t About Perfection

The practice of changing your language is not about perfection, rather, it is about the practice. About encouraging reflection and becoming more mindful of the language we choose. By eliminating the negative context of these three words, and becoming mindful of the messages you want to convey, you increase clarity in your communication. You can be more effective, authentic and empowered in your choices. Try it out!



Karen Bowen owns ManagerKnowHow, a firm specializing in leadership curriculums and interventional organizational development services. Masters educated with 20+ years of experience, Karen is an expert in translating the complex world of values, leadership skills, team dynamics, and culture into metrics, measurable trends, concrete strategy and practical objectives.