Quit using passive language at work and start taking up more space.
For most of my working career I have been a serial apologiser, an overthinker of emails, a phone call cringer. I’ve found myself on more than one occasion, sitting in meetings, agreeing vigorously with ideas that, quite frankly, I knew were bad.
Why? I hated confrontation. A hater of any kind of self promotion, I was eventually told that I was being overlooked for a higher role for sitting on the sidelines. That it was my communication style (or lack thereof) not my work, that was keeping me from progressing in my career. Ouch.
It hardly comes as a shock to read that women are “four times more likely” to tone down their language with the intention to mitigate the risks of their opinions. But as we place collective cracks in the glass ceiling and more women are in the driver’s seat of their own businesses or getting promoted into positions of power, why isn’t our language reflecting the confidence and elevation these roles require and why do we keep apologising for ourselves?
Raise your hand if you have found yourself apologising in any, or all, of these situations.
- Asking for “just 5 more minutes” to finish off an email after being interrupted by a colleague.
- Participating in that awkward zig zag when trying to pass your boss in the kitchen.
- Having to leave on time.
You can’t see my hand right now, but I assure you it’s raised so high it’s being crushed against the ceiling.
It wasn’t until Kris Jenner (yes, Kris Jenner… stick with me) taught me a life lesson I now pass onto anyone who will listen. The year was 2017, the famous family was going through a tumultuous time, and Kim, being the bearer of great wisdom, decided that the family needed training to deal with the constant peppering of uncomfortable questions thrown at them by the media.
Kris Jenner. The momager, the maker of fortunes and billionaires, the director of businesses and Forbes listed companies, was pulled up time and time again for using passive language that constantly undermined her authority. The offending phrase? ”I think”.
While most of us don’t have access to celebrity-grade media training, or would rather step on Lego than subject ourselves to it, it was the kick up the bum I needed to look inwards and finally acknowledge that my own passive language was having a negative effect on how I was being perceived at work.
I started researching passive language in the workplace and stumbled across a Google Chrome extension for Gmail called Just Not Sorry, the brainchild of Tami Reiss, born out of building awareness of “how we qualify our message and diminish our voice”. Once installed (it’s free I might add) this trusty extension boldly underlines in red the words that directly try to undermine the message you’re trying to send.
I suggest you download it and start using it, right now.
So, are you ready for some of the words and phrases that tend to rear their ugly heads in the workplace? I assume if you’ve read this far you might be quite familiar with them.
- Sorry, and it’s evil stepsister, so sorry
- I think
- Is that ok?
Never fear, here are some common phrases and their reworks you can use straight away to get your edge back and present more confidently.
“I’m so sorry I’m late”
Stop apologising for joining a meeting 1 minute late. If you’re going to be over 5 minutes late, you should definitely apologise, that’s kinda rude, but 1 or 2 minutes is hardly worth apologising for. Besides, you were probably doing something important, like your job.
If you feel you need to acknowledge your lateness, start with.
“Thanks for waiting for me”
“Can we set up a meeting? Is that ok?”
This is a big ol’ dollop of passive language that puts you on the backfoot, making you come across as unconfident and unsure of yourself. If you want to set up a meeting, take the lead, you have something to say and are deserving of someone else’s time. Take initiative and show you are keen to set something up as soon as possible.
Try “I’d love to chat about this in further detail, are you free at 10am on Tuesday?”
Sorry, just checking that you received my email?
Don’t worry, they did. Remember, the balls in their court. They aren’t taking the time to get back to you on information you need to be able to do your job. So why are you the one apologising?
Try “I haven’t heard back from you on the below email. Do you have any questions on this that I can help with?”
“I’m so sorry for the tight turnaround. Are you please able to help me with this? Sorry!”
Unless you have forgotten something or have made an error, you shouldn’t really be apologising. Last minute deadlines and changes are part of the working world and unfortunately things will happen from time to time. Apologising for something that isn’t your fault, does not make sense.
Try “Thanks in advance for your help with this one. Due to a few last minute changes, I need your help in turning this around as soon as possible.”
“I think that this is a really great idea, what do you think?”
Using passive language such as I think, shows that you aren’t confident in what you’re proposing (thanks Kris), asking validation from someone else doubles down that you aren’t quite sure of yourself. If you want to put something you believe in on the table, say it. If you need to get input or validation from another party, make it a collaborative statement rather than a question.
Try “This is a great idea, I’d love to get your input”
Removing passive language from your vocabulary will take time and a bit of effort. Especially as it seems to be ingrained in women’s language from the moment we squeeze ourselves into that ill-fitting pencil skirt.
Simply being aware of your language and having the knowledge that it needs to change is one step in the right direction. I will say it again, download Just Not Sorry, you need to download it, right this second. It will transform your emails.
And for some extra homework, watch Season 14 Ep 11 of Keeping up with the Kardashians. You’re welcome.
By Genevieve McMullen