We all want to look  professional, be more successful, and learn the linguistic tricks that can help us get there quickly.

Here's some advice that will help. It revolves around three words.

Quick story: My wife's uncle had a successful sales career. Once, when he wanted to share a story with me, I got an insight into one of his secrets. He started by saying:

"Bill, I think you're really going to find this interesting ... "

It was a smart introduction. Just a few short words, seemingly extraneous, but they subtly put the focus on me, not him. They suggested he'd chosen this particular story not just because he wanted to tell it, but also because he thought I'd like to hear it. I couldn't help myself; it made me want to listen.

It's funny how small things can communicate so much, but it works both ways--positive and negative. 

Hedging your bets

Writing in The New York Times, Molly Worthen, an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, calls out the three words you should stop using:

"I feel like ... "

They're weak words, weasel words, conflict-avoiding words. Words that we use when we don't have the courage of our convictions, and we'd rather hedge our bets and say something in a calculated way that sacrifices certainty for safety.

And yet, they're common--and only becoming more so. I'm sure you see it in your work and in your life. People who are afraid simply to say what they mean, and instead couch their convictions with language about how they feel.

"The imperfect data that linguists have collected indicates that 'I feel like' became more common toward the end of the last century," Worthen writes. "But make no mistake: 'I feel like' is not a harmless tic."

Incontrovertible opinions

Qualifying your opinion disqualifies your remarks. It makes it sound as if you're not even sure of what you're saying. If you're not even sure, why should anyone else be convinced?

Worthen continues: "'I feel like' masquerades as a humble conversational offering, an invitation to share your feelings too--but the phrase is an absolutist trump card. It halts argument in its tracks," because who can disagree with you? 

You're not saying that the sky is blue or water is wet; you're merely suggesting that you subjectively perceive it that way. And if others perceive it differently, that's OK too.

Perhaps most dangerous, Worthen writes, "This linguistic hedging is particularly common at universities, where calls for trigger warnings and safe spaces may have eroded students' inclination to assert or argue. It is safer to merely 'feel.'"

Exceptions and synonyms

There are exceptions, of course--but they should be mindful exceptions.

You might use the phrase "I feel like" to soften a blow. ("I feel like maybe you're not happy here, and we're going to offer you a severance package so you can find something else you'd rather be doing.")

There are other synonymous preambles that can undermine you just as easily, of course. Things like:

"It just seems like ... "

"I might be wrong, but ... "

"This is probably a stupid question, but ... "

The CEO of my company sometimes asks questions casually, as if they're throwaways. But when he adds the phrase, "just curious," I know they're very important to him. It's not a crutch; it's intentional. That's fine.

"Bill, just curious, did you get a chance to close the deal with XYZ Corporation, like you said you would?" (I'm on to you, boss.)

This, I believe

I write prescriptive columns like this one, and sometimes I'm concerned that people won't give themselves a break. Yes, it's good to husband your use of weak phrases--but we all use them. Nobody is "on" 100 percent of the time, nobody I'd want to spend much time with, anyway.

But I also know that sometimes people with good, smart ideas undermine their persuasiveness by using these kinds of verbal crutches. Don't deprive the world of your solutions. Stand up for your beliefs, and let your language reflect it.

What do you think? Linguistic crutch or harmless phrase? Let us know in the comments below, and download the free bonus e-book The Big Free Book of Success.

Published on: May 2, 2016