Using passive and ambiguous language or cursing near the wrong people can turn off customers and coworkers, costing your company money.


We often take them for granted, but the words we use have a very real, often unnoticed, effect on our ability to become successful in business.

A study by The Economist found that nearly all (97 percent) of business executives have experienced misunderstandings due to poor communication, while 83 percent have actually seen negative business outcomes from something as simple as a poor choice of words. On the other hand, businesses and individuals with more mature communication profiles have much stronger chances of achieving higher levels of efficiency, flexibility and profitability.

It’s not difficult to conclude that the words we choose to use, how we position ourselves during negotiations, and even how we speak to ourselves will have a lasting impact on our lives.

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The sooner you can identify and eliminate the words and phrases you use that drain your team’s motivation, diminish your customers’ interest in your business, and erode your own sense of self-confidence, the quicker you’ll be able to start making the positive changes you seek.

Naturally, much will depend on the circumstances, but here are the words I’ve found to be most counterproductive to achieving success in business.

1. “I should have”

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We all make mistakes. After all, a career in business means taking risks, trying new things, and pushing the limits on what we’re capable of. Don’t waste time and energy lamenting over what you should have done. Learn your lesson, move on, and do it right the next time.

2. “I could”

As much as possible, speak in realistic absolutes. Instead of  “I could,” choose to use a more confident statement like “I will.” This shows your commitment to taking the action you’re contemplating, and goes to great lengths to eliminate any hint of doubt.

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3. “I would have”

It’s great (and necessary) to take time to reflect on your achievements, failures and everything in between, when it’s a meaningful experience. However, once you internalize the takeaways you’ve learned from each experience, it’s time to apply them toward your future, rather than lose sleep about the past.

4. “I’m not sure”

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Being honest is a wonderful virtue, but saying you’re “not sure” frequently will cast doubt on your competence and subject matter expertise. Instead, focus on anticipating the scenarios heading your way, so that you can do your research and be as informed as possible. You’ll achieve much higher levels of certainty by making yourself an expert in your domain.

5. Curse words

Swearing has its purpose, but is often very out of context in the workplace. Social media entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk argues that while using curse words can grab attention, it can also alienate customers and cause harm to your business brand. In a blog, he said “Plenty of people find swearing off-putting in public, even if they occasionally swear themselves. So instead of creating connection, swearing creates discomfort … the truth is that a huge segment of the population finds this more offensive than just about anything.”

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6. “Maybe if”

There’s only one way to find out, right? After considering possible solutions and workarounds to your business challenges, make your shortlist, rank the most promising options and try them in that order, as cost-effectively as possible. Eliminate your “maybe ifs,” and instead put them to action.

7. “I think”

In many cases, I’ve found that introducing a statement with the phrase “I think” connotes a sense of uncertainty and lack of confidence, inviting a deluge of alternative opinions. Use the phrase when encouraging open conversation, but avoid it at all costs when making an authoritative statement.

8. Unnecessary acronyms, industry jargon and clichés

I’m a huge advocate of honing your knowledge and becoming an expert in your field. However, that status doesn’t give you license to invoke obscure technical terms, industry jargon and business clichés every chance you get, just to show off. These words aren’t going to magically make you sound more knowledgeable. On the contrary, they tend to alienate people, highlight self-doubt and open you up to more opportunities for misusing said terms.

9. “When I get the chance,” “ASAP” and other vague time frames

When setting deadlines or schedules for your work, remember you’re building a milestone for yourself. Being specific about dates and times will go a long way in helping both you and your customers. Going with a statement like “Give me two days to formulate an alternative,” versus “I’ll try to sort this out ASAP,” conveys a sense of refined professionalism and helps make your customers (and co-workers or employees) more confident in you.

10. “Probably”

Employees and customers alike prefer clarity and certainty over ambiguity and doubt. When speaking or writing, make your statements definitive so your audience will understand exactly what you mean and what you intend to do. Leave no room for alternative interpretations.

11. “Really,” “very” and other emphasis-boosting words

Less is more in this scenario. If you often use “really” or “very” to make your statements more emphatic, you may want to consider unlearning the habit. Liberally using filler words like this tends to dilute the impact of your message.

A CONFIDENCE BOOST

Remember, the trick to presenting a positive self-image is to refrain from using words that show doubt, insecurity, lack of confidence or negativity in business.


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