Many people have a funny habit of apologizing and downplaying their thoughts and opinions the moment they begin to voice them. I first noticed this trend a few years ago while sitting in a meeting, and I have become acutely aware of it ever since. It is highly likely that you do this without even realizing it; I know I certainly have.
What do pre-emptive apologies and downplays sound like? Here are a few examples:
- “This is just my opinion, but…”
- “I’m only thinking that…”
- “I’m sorry, but the way I see it…”
- “I personally believe that we maybe shouldn’t use that contractor.”
- “I’m not really all that good at (insert thing that you are actually awesome at)”
I hear people saying things like this on a daily basis. I’ve heard CEOs and new grads alike pepper their phrases with these kinds of statements. What’s more, we amplify these confidence-killing statements with non-verbal signals. We make supplicating or defensive gestures such shoving hands in pockets, shrugging, even holding palms outwards in a staving-off position.
People who regularly do this in professional or business situations worry me especially, as it can make listeners sub-consciously question the speaker’s confidence, competence, and decisiveness.
“But Lauren,” I hear someone cry, “we’re only being polite when we use openers like that! We don’t want to seem bossy or pushy – we’re just softening our words.”
I’m willing to give a little bit of credence to that explanation. Sometimes we do need to soften our openers, particularly when we are dealing with high-strung people who will either bite your head off or burst into tears at the slightest hint of opposition. Generally, however, what we are really doing is protecting ourselves from taking the risk of owning our accomplishments, skills, and opinions.
Voicing our thoughts and opinions exposes us to a considerable amount of risk. We risk being wrong, possibly losing credibility with our group. We risk being right, which may result in us having to take on the responsibility of acting on or supporting our idea. We risk being objectionable, which may result in members of the group rejecting us as well as our opinion. We risk experiencing emotional pain or discomfort of some variety or another. You can see why trying to reduce that risk with apologetic, deferential language is so tempting.
But as with most things in life, no risk usually equals no reward. The meek don’t get hired into positions of authority, the uncertain don’t make the sale, and the apologetic become doormats. If you want to be polite, you can do so without resorting to diminishing your opinions. Politeness tends to come across more in tone of voice and body language than it does through actual words.
Ever wonder how some people get away with saying outrageous things yet still manage to be likable? There are usually key differences in their vocal tone and body language that helps people listening to them feel comfortable in spite of the actual words being use. It’s a masterful social skill with a valuable subconscious effect.
So how do we stop using diminishing expressions when we’re giving our ideas or opinions? Stop attaching words like “just” and “only” to words like “my opinion” or “my thoughts” or “idea.” Keep your voice polite and your body non-aggressive. Get to your point, don’t beat around the bush, and for heaven’s sake don’t apologize for being a thinking human being.
Like many things worth doing, it seems simple and obvious but takes effort to put into practice. The apologizing is a hard habit to break, but learning to leave it behind is worth your while!
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