5 Phrases to Avoid in Professional Communications

August 18, 2015


In business, communication is everything. When we interview Supply Chain executives, they almost always point to communications skills (both verbal and written) as the key to progressing in your career beyond transactional and purely-analytical roles and into the manager level. More senior, manager-and-above roles (especially in Procurement and Supply Chain) require the ability to achieve buy-in from a diversity of coworkers and internal customers. And you can only accomplish this if you’re credible and professional in your communications.

So it’s important to think about the way you communicate. It’s important to think about the phrases that we all end up using that don’t convey any new information, or that (even worse) send implicit messages that counteract what you’re trying to say. We all end up using these phrases in our speech and communications at some point – often without our realizing it. The goal of this exercise isn’t to police the way that you communicate, but to think about how you can be more mindful and avoid using phrases that counteract your message or your credibility without your knowledge.

Here’s a quick list of a few very common phrases that are worth taking out of your business vocabulary, whether it’s a job interview, a meeting, or an email. These aren’t the clichés or jargon (“synergy,” “disruptive”) that you often hear critiqued when people talk about business communication. Rather, they’re the unconscious space-fillers that send the wrong message:

“Let me be Honest”

This is a big one which we hear a lot in our recruitment practice. Professionals use this when they want to offer a frank opinion, or to suggest that they’re dropping the framing or speaking directly. It’s well-intentioned. But the message it sends is that you weren’t being honest until that point. It implies that your baseline understanding of the conversation is one of dishonesty. Worse, by asking if the other person will “let” you change the register of the conversation to one of honesty, you’re subtly implying that the listener is being dishonest as well.

Which is something that of course no one using this phrase means to say. You’re saying it because you want to convey honesty, not its opposite. But overuse of this phrase can ultimately harm your credibility – or at least make you seem less aware of your communication style than you probably are.

Consider saying “let me be frank,” or “let me be candid,” instead.

“At the end of the day”

This phrase, along with its cousin, “when all is said and done,” is a more innocuous offender. It doesn’t convey the wrong message or imply the opposite of what you mean. Instead, it’s guilty of filling space and doing nothing to further your message. People use this in business to refer to an outcome, or to introduce a summary of a situation. But there are many more direct, non-cliché ways to offer a summary or a description of an outcome.

“But” Sentences

This is a way of constructing sentences that many considerate professionals use. It has a negative impact on your credibility, and it’s also surprisingly difficult to stop using. Have you ever had the experience of hearing someone begin a sentence, only to feel the sense that the sentence was heading towards a “but” – a pivot that allows you to safely disregard the first half of what they’re saying? A business version of this might be, “I value our relationship with this supplier, but [blank].”

You’re using this construction because you want to communicate that you’ve considered both sides of a given issue. Which is great. The problem is that it ends up making you sound as though you’re paying lip-service to one perspective, only to favour your own.

“It is What it is”

This one is incredibly common. It’s a tautology that you often hear applied in business whenever a professional responds to a situation that they deem out of their control. We’re having problems with that supplier? It is what it is. Negotiations are falling through? It is what it is. When professionals use this phrase, they typically want to acknowledge that some things are outside their, or anyone’s control. But as this article mentions, “this phrase abdicates responsibility, shuts down creative problem solving, and concedes defeat.”

Besides that, this phrase is meaningless. What is the “it” you’re referring to? Why not just refer to it by name? The resulting discussion can lead to workarounds and solutions, or at least further acknowledgment of the intractability of the problem. Worse case, you’ve shown the ability to take responsibility for difficult problems instead of shrugging your shoulders, and that’s a better way to be perceived.

“No Problem”

Here’s a minor one that’s seeped into professional communication all over the place. It doesn’t even register for most people hearing it, but once you notice the subtle implication underneath, you can’t help but feel like it conveys something opposite to what its speakers intend.

Here’s an example:

Professional 1: “Thanks for sending that quarterly report.”

Professional 2: “No problem.”

The issue with this phrase is that, when you deploy it as a replacement for “you’re welcome” in professional communications, you start to sound like doing your job – what you’re expected to do — represents a possible problem. This great article from NPR summarizes the case against “no problem” as a replacement for “you’re welcome.” In Alva Noe’s words: “By saying “no problem,” it always seems to me as if what you are really saying is: ‘It is a problem and I forgive you for it.’”

Our aim in writing this post isn’t to suggest that you have to be rigid in avoiding saying certain things. We ourselves certainly end up using these and other phrases that don’t communicate our message from time to time.

The overall takeaway is that it’s important to be mindful of your speech, and to realize when you’re saying things that don’t do anything to further your message, that are just filling space, or are actually sending the wrong implicit message to your listener. It’s part of building effective communication skills, which are extremely important to anyone looking to progress their career to the manager level and beyond. logo_icon         

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