People First HR Services

10 phrases to stall your career

Colleen Coates

Your social skills can open doors or slam them shut. Whether dealing with customers, co-workers or your boss, the words you choose and how you frame your message influences the way people perceive you. The difference between being a problem-solver or a problem is as simple as the words you choose. It is not what you intended those words to mean, it really is the words you choose.

Proper word usage can be a powerful tool that shapes how people feel about you. Using the correct words also provides the opportunity for people to want to listen to you and hear what you have to say. Too often business communication is filled with extra words that just fill space, mix up the intended message or are negative and unproductive.

In an informal poll of communication experts and career advisers, these 10 phrases were voted the worst things to say in your career:

“That’s not my job.” This statement is about what you can’t do as opposed to what you can do. Making this statement implies you are not a team player and speaks volume about your inflexibility and willingness to learn new skills. Next time try “That’s not my area of expertise. I know someone who can get that done for you.”

“I think . . .” This statement is right up there with “I believe” and “I feel.” These phrases discount whatever you say next and your opinion may not be viewed as valid. A better approach is often to simply drop the “I think” and finish your thought. “This is the best approach” is a much stronger statement than “I think this is the best approach.” A similar approach can be taken with words such as “I want” or I’d like to.” Again drop these filler words and make your statement, turning “I’d like to thank you” into “Thank you.”

“I don’t know.” While this may be an honest answer, you’re taking the easy way out. Use of this phrase can portray you as lazy and unwilling to help out. Next time, say “Good question. Let me find out the answer” so you are seen as a problem solver.

“I can’t.” Again this implies your unwillingness to try something new, be helpful or even part of the solution. Next time, if you are asked to attend a meeting where you have a conflict, instead of saying “I can’t,” say “I currently have a conflict at that time; however, I will do my best to move that appointment.”

“But . . .” The use of this completely wipes out anything you’ve said just prior to this. For example “Your new suit looks great, but you may want to change the tie colour.”

We are conditioned to always listen for the negative information. As a manager you’ve probably been coached at some point to use the “sandwich approach” when giving feedback — that’s say something nice, then something negative, following by something nice. This approach can soften the negative and the last thing heard is a positive. Sometimes “but” is easily replaced with “and,” which softens the message as well.

“That’s not a good idea.” If you are looking to shut down a discussion, just say these words. People usually do not respond well to this phrase. Next time you hear something that you believe to be a poor idea, simple ask “How would that work?”

“I’ll try.” Trying implies you won’t necessary get the task accomplished. You are setting the stage to imply that you may fail. So the next time your boss asks you to get some work done before the end of the day and you respond “I’ll try,” don’t be surprised when you are passed over for that next big assignment. A better approach would be to commit to something you can achieve such as “I’ll have it on your desk by 5 p.m.”

“It wasn’t my fault.” This is a diversion tactic sure to backfire on you. If someone asks what happened and you respond with this phrase, or even worse suggest who made the error or blame it on a predecessor, you will not be setting yourself in the best possible light. What your manager wants to hear is “I’ll investigate what happened and get back to you” or “I can see what happened here and here is what I’ll put in place to be sure it doesn’t happen again.”

“I guess.” This phrase puts you on the fence. It’s a non-committal method used that reflects a lack of confidence. So the next time you are asked “Do you think this will work?” instead of saying “I guess,” say “It looks like it will work. How will this impact our other project?” This way you are seen as positive, yet you have expressed your concern that can then be addressed by the person delivering the question.

“That’s impossible.” You may as well pack up your desk and search for a different career if you make this statement. This shows that you are not willing to try and shuts down all productive discussions. A more positive way to express your concerns would be to say “Interesting. Let’s look at some other methods and see if there are some alternatives to consider.”

If your boss, mentor, career coach or other person you respect has ever told you that you need to improve your communication skills, heed their advice and make it your priority.

Excellent communication skills will appear on almost every job posting and even if it is not, it is often implied.

This could be the one skill that holds you back from attaining that promotion or securing that new job. Every hiring manager or recruiter is listening carefully to how you speak.


Colleen Coates, CHRP, CCP, is a practice leader with People First HR Services Ltd. She can be contacted at




Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 23, 2013 H2