If you don’t have anything productive to say, don’t say anything at all.
Radio host Bernard Meltzer is famously quoted as having said, “Before you speak, ask yourself if what you are going to say is true, is kind, is necessary, is helpful. If the answer is no, maybe what you are about to say should be left unsaid.” I find that this is as true in the workplace as it is in personal life.
That said, here are seven unhelpful words and phrases anyone in the workforce should consider removing from their professional vocabulary.
- I can’t.
“Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right.” Henry Ford was quoted as having said in 1947, and it holds up even today. I have my own version. Whenever I’m asked for my best advice, I always say, “‘I can’t’ is rarely accurate. ‘I choose not to’ is often the most accurate.”
I say rarely because some things are inarguable truths. I know I can’t defy gravity; that’s a fact. But if I say I can’t lift a heavy weight, that might not be true. What’s true is that, so far, I have chosen not to do the work required to lift a heavy weight. Most of the time, what you can or cannot do is a choice. Try replacing the negative, “I can’t” with the positive, “How can I?” and see what changes.
This one is just lazy, but more to the point, it usually doesn’t mean anything. There are far more effective adjectives and modifiers that can be used in place of “very.” Rather than say someone is very capable, describe them as skillful, or swap “very tired” for “exhausted.”
- That’s not my job.
You would be hard-pressed to find an individual who’s never been asked to take care of something that wasn’t technically their job. Yes, it can be a frustrating scenario, and there is a time and place to push back, but does this phrase help anyone on either side of the question?
The inherent problem with “that’s not my job” is that it often implies a task is beneath you. Even if you feel it is, consider a more productive response that contributes to accomplishing the intended goal. Something else to consider is that being asked to handle work that’s outside your scope of responsibilities could lead to bigger opportunities down the line.
- I don’t have time.
File this under the “not productive” column. News flash: everyone has the same amount of time in a day. Telling a co-worker, boss, or client you don’t have time for something is rude, but moreover, it can cast an unflattering light on your time management skills. Alternate phrases include variations of, “Can we discuss this when I’m finished with the project I’m working on?” or “I’m all booked up today but tell me when you need this and I’ll let you know if I can take care of it.”
If the request is coming from above and your bandwidth is truly stretched, you can also present your current list of tasks and ask if there is something you should de-prioritize in order to accommodate the new ask.
- You’ll have it soon.
“Soon” is not quantifiable and is therefore heavily subject to interpretation. Without hard deadlines, things often slip off the radar. Providing a firm date or time not only sets clear expectations, but it can also help keep you accountable. If you’d prefer more flexibility, commit to a window of time (e.g., “You’ll have it Wednesday, Thursday at the latest).
- We should.
This usually implies kicking the can down the road. “We should” should only be used in conjunction with a definitive, time-boxed action item.
- I don’t know.
On its own, “I don’t know” is a dead end. And while it’s improved when followed by a commitment to finding an answer, a better approach is to provide the information you do know. It’s the difference between, “I don’t know when the shipment will arrive” and “The shipment was scheduled to arrive on Monday; I will follow up with the carrier for an updated and come back to you by the end of the day.”
Not all these words and phrases offend all people, of course; there are always contextual variables at play. But language is what we use to create and foster relationships. Being aware of, and thoughtful about how we use it and how it affects others can be a total game-changer.