Phrases to Avoid as a Leader


As a new leader, you’ll want to start cleaning up your language to sound confident and professional. I’m not talking about learning big words and sounding like an ivy league intellectual. Honestly, in my opinion, you should always avoid these “big words” unless they convey a specific feeling or meaning. Big words often cause confusion or cause people to check out of the conversation.

What I’m talking about are fillers or unprofessional phrases you are likely using that make you sound passive, weak or unprepared to lead. As you read through the list, identify the words or phrases you actively use and decide to stop using them immediately or swap them out for better words.

1. Very
This word is a filler that doesn’t mean anything and doesn’t add anything to your message. Think about it. If you say that a person on your team is very angry, do you mean they’re simply “angry”? Or do you mean to say they’re “irate”? Or maybe you meant to say they’re “annoyed”? Use the word that conveys the actual imagery you want. Be descriptive rather than using the word “very”.

2. I don’t know
I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to have someone say this on it’s own. Think about sitting down with someone on your team. You ask them a question and they say “I don’t know” – and that’s it! End of story. While using the words “I don’t know” can be perfectly acceptable (because you really might not know), it should be followed up with additional words such as “but I’ll find out.” Or use “but I know someone who does….” and offer to follow up with that person. Unless you’re in a courtroom, the phrase “I don’t know” on its own should be rarely, if ever, used.

3. I can’t
Don’t earn a reputation for being a negative person by using the phrase “I can’t.” If you’re asked to do something that you don’t have time for, certainly let the other person know. But instead of saying “I can’t”, consider saying “I would love to take that on, but I have x, y and z as priorities right now. If any of these can be reprioritized, please let me know and I’ll fit in the additional task.” Or if it’s something you don’t know how to do, consider saying “I haven’t done that before, but I would be willing to learn from x and take on the additional challenge.” Always think to yourself “How can I….?” instead of “I can’t.” It’s the only way you’ll grow in your role.

4. Like, um, uhh
These are speech fillers that you should work on eliminating as quickly as possible. They sound unprofessional and will cause your listener to either check out of the conversation or discount what you have to say because you sound like you’re uncertain. Use your phone to record yourself having a conversation with yourself, or if you’re feeling brave, ask someone on your team to record you during a normal work conversation or during a meeting. When you listen to the recording, see if you can identify any fillers such as like, um or uhh. Write down a new script and practice talking without those words. You might find that you have to slow down, breath or take a pause to be conscientious about the word you’re using. I’ll admit now, “um” was always a filler that I used. I joined Toastmasters to get comfortable speaking in front of a group and to identify the words I was using. Not that I’m a perfect speaker today, but it made a world of difference!

5. It wasn’t my fault
This is a good one. Even if it really wasn’t your fault – don’t say it. It immediately makes you look defensive, weak and blaming. A leader advances by understanding that success depends on the team. By saying it wasn’t your fault, you’re putting the blame on someone else on the team which makes you look like a bad team player. Focus on how to fix the problem rather than focusing on blame.

6. We’ve always done it that way
Don’t ever say this. A great leader supports change and understands that to make progress, sometimes things have to be done differently. By saying “we’ve always done it this way,” you come across as stagnant and unwilling to change or compromise. What can you say instead? Say “I understand your concern and I have some ideas about how we can fix that”. Or try “I understand what the problem is with the process – let me think about a better way to handle it.”

7. Just
Using this word minimizes the message you’re trying to convey and serves no purpose in your conversation. It almost always adds a negative feel to your messaging. Think about how someone might use this. If someone on your team is having difficulty working through a problem with someone in another department and you tell them to “just schedule a meeting with the person and do x”, you are minimizing the problem the person on your team is having. You’re making it sound like the answer was simple. Whether the answer was simple or not, it makes your team member feel inadequate. How else might you use it? You might say “I just wanted to check in to see how you’re doing on the project.” Again, you’re minimizing yourself – making it seem like you are inconveniencing the other person in some way. Think about using “How’s the progress on the project going?” It’s much more direct and professional.

8. I think
Using this phrase makes you seem uncertain. It conveys a lack of confidence in your ideas or abilities. Either you can or you can’t. Don’t say “I think I can get the report done Friday.” Say “I will have the completed report to you by Friday at 1:00 PM.”

9. I feel
Never use this unless you’re actually talking about how you feel in a conversation. It sounds wishy-washy. Don’t say “I feel like this project is coming in over budget.” Say “This project appears to be coming in over budget – let’s do a quick review of the financials.” Be assertive.

10. Sorry
This is a tough one, especially for women. We all have this problem because we want to be nice. Overusing the word, though, can make you appear meek, timid and passive. It can give the impression that you’re a screw-up otherwise why would you be saying sorry so much? Find new phrases that convey confidence. For example, were you late to a meeting? Rather than saying “I’m sorry I’m late,” say “Thank you for waiting for me.” Rather than saying “I’m sorry to bother you,” say “Do you have time for a quick question?” Save the “sorry’s” for something you are truly sorry for.


If you struggle to communicate clearly and effectively as a female leader, we have a course for that. You’ll discover actionable ways to improve communication, learn the importance of body language, and receive feedback from the other women in your cohort. 


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