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.”
- “Now I’m not sure if this is right or not, but I was sort of thinking that…”
Okay, that last one was a little ridiculous, but I have heard phrases like it so often that I wonder how anyone is capable of taking anyone else seriously. What’s more, we exacerbate the deference with non-verbal signals. These types of phrases are generally accompanies by supplicating or defensive gestures such as placing a hand on one’s heart, shrugging, holding hands in supine (palms up), or in a staving-off position (hands raised, palms facing out towards the other person like the speaker is keeping that person away)
The frequency with which we pre-emptively water down the potential impact of our words is astounding. What’s more, we do this not only in social situations where we are trying to be friendly, but in all areas – including business situations. Watching this practice is business is particularly worrying to me, as it can negatively impact the impression we give of our own confidence, competence, and decisiveness.
I think we need to stop this self-deprecating verbal nonsense.
“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 risk.
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. Most people tend to avoid that like the plague.
Unfortunately, the downside of speaking your mind can be very evident in every day exchanges. People who may be ruffled by that opinion will insert snide comments: “Tell us what you really think!” People who feel insecure around people who express themselves confidently will deride the confident person behind their backs: “Well, they certainly have opinions.” You have probably both heard and said these things; I certainly have. Next time you hear or say these, watch what happens to the conversation. Pre-emptive apologies will abound as people avoid giving their risky opinion.
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 why there are some people who can get away with saying outrageous things yet still manage to stay at the top of our “people we really like” list? Watch them closely next time you are around them; you might start to notice key differences in their vocal tone and body language that ensures their audience remains comfortable despite what is being said. It’s a masterful social skill and often occurs quite subconsciously.
So how do we stop using diminishing expressions when we’re giving our ideas or opinions? In terms of vocabulary, it’s pretty straightforward: stop attaching words like “just” and “only” to words like “my opinion” or “my thoughts” or “idea.” Get to your point, don’t beat around the bush, and for heaven’s sake don’t apologize for being a thinking human being. Keep your voice polite and your body non-aggressive. The apologizing is a hard habit to break, but it is worthwhile to be able to leave it behind in most situations and pull it out when circumstance warrants its use.