Home Professionalisms 24 Phrases That Are Totally Holding You Back At Work

24 Phrases That Are Totally Holding You Back At Work


by May Habib, co-founder and CEO of Writer

Social psychologists say your influence isn’t so much about what you say but how you say it. University of California at Los Angeles Professor Emeritus Albert Mehrabian attributes only about 7 percent of a message’s impact to words, with the rest coming from vocal cues (38 percent) and non-verbal communication (55 percent).

In the world of online work, we don’t have our voices or bodies to soften our written messages. And it’s those messages that are holding you back.

Our AI-based writing assistant here at Writer is working double-time to shape our words so they’re correct and impactful. Here are 24 examples of the words and phrases that we catch and fix every day.

Write confidently.

Some of the lowest-hanging fruit in how we talk and write is our use of uncertain language. Starting a request with “I was wondering…,” an idea with, “This may sound stupid…,” or an assertion with “I feel…,” is the surest way to downgrade your message. Even sprinkling your chatter with softeners like “sort of” or “kind of” — which is more of a verbal tic than anything — minimizes their importance. Review what you say or write, and then be like a fourth grader learning fractions: Reduce, reduce, reduce! By being more direct, you’ll sound more confident.

Say “sorry” less.

A well-timed, specific apology when you’ve messed up is a good thing, but the problem is that “sorry” has lost its lustre. We use it so much in everyday communication that it has become reflexive and insincere. Consider being a little more precise when taking ownership of a mistake or acknowledging someone’s feelings. For example, if you have to back-burner a project a colleague has poured their heart into, a tossed-off “sorry” can feel like an insult. Consider this instead: “You put a ton of effort into that project. I imagine it’s frustrating to de-prioritize it.”

Consider your tone.

It’s OK to be direct, but sometimes our tone can be negative. We see two flavors of this: The first is garden-variety negativity, like “That sucks,” “Just stop,” or “It’s not my job.” Before uttering the words or hitting send on a buzzkill message like this, take a break and come back to it when you’re in a better mood. Neutralize your note or delete it altogether and call the person (or better yet, schedule a quick chat for tomorrow, after you’ve had a chance to get some rest…and perspective).

Don’t be toxic.

The second flavor of negativity is straight-up toxic phrases. These can be bullying, discriminatory, racist, or simply unhealthy. We asked 1,000 professionals whether they have been on the receiving end of toxic communication at work since the pandemic began, and a full 38 percent reported they had. (By the way, that number jumps to 52 percent for people of color.) Examples include racial slurs, calling someone a “snowflake”, referring to a woman as “girl”, or annotations with racist origins such as “blacklist” in data security or “master/slave” in software development.

Turn around negative phrasing.

Speaking of negativity, sometimes we unintentionally phrase our messages in the negative when they would be more effective in the positive. For example, turn “We can’t do [task] until you do…,” into “We can do [task] when you do…” Or, change “I can’t get you the report until Wednesday” to “I can get you the report on Wednesday, earliest.” Subtle tweaks can create positive vibes all around.

Don’t be passive-aggressive.

“Whatever,” “Hope you’re happy,” “Wow, OK,” “Just saying,” and — our personal favorite — “As I said before,” are all examples of passive-aggressive words and phrases. There isn’t always a quick fix for these kinds of messages, but simply being aware that you’re using them is half the battle. It can signal deep-seated issues or hurt feelings that you need to pay attention to.

Watch your jargon.

Beyond negative and toxic communication, watch your jargon. Among team members or with a small group, we have plenty of shorthand words and phrases, but resist the urge to codify them in writing. That goes for business jargon like “operationalize”, “leverage”, and “synergies”. And “utilize”? Just use “use”.


May Habib is co-founder and CEO of Writer, an AI writing assistant for teams. Before founding Writer, May was a vice president at one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds, where she was the first employee on the technology investment team, building a portfolio now worth over $20B. She is a member of the World Economic Forum, and is a Fellow of the Aspen Global Leadership Network.