Earlier this month, I attended Content Marketing World, a cool conference that focuses on the intersection of branding and journalism. The week was ripe for networking, and I exchanged several business cards with editors at companies that hire writers. When I returned, I was anxious to follow up, and in my haste I apparently committed a big blunder: I sent emails that started with "Just checking in."

Yeah, in hindsight I realize it was pretty lame. In fact, John Sherer, former blogger for HubSpot, calls it selfish and useless. "We're not 'just checking-in,' we are trying to accomplish something," he writes. "You admit you're checking in for the sake of checking in and have no real value add."

Ouch! Why is this so bad, and what should I have done instead?

" 'Just' is a permission word, in a way--a warm-up to a request, an apology for interrupting, a shy knock on a door before asking 'Can I get something I need from you?' " says Ellen Petry Leanse, who instructs an Enlightened Innovation class at Stanford University and is the founder of Karmahacks.com, a website that offers tips for confidence and well-being.

When you start a conversation with the word "just," you change it into a parent/child transaction, where you are the child asking for permission from a person to whom you've granted authority and control, she says.

"There are times when we need something from other people, and we don't need to apologize for asking," says Petry Leanse. "It makes me wonder where we got mixed up in the value exchange? What would happen if we depersonalize the conversation and simply ask for an exchange?"

How To Do Better

To understand how you represent yourself, Petry Leanse suggests visiting your email sent folder and reading past messages.

"You are your own best teacher," she says. "Look at what you've written without being self critical. Is this the way you want to show up? Then decide how you can improve. It's easier to take feedback from yourself than feedback from other people."

Moving forward, it's important to pay attention to how you speak and write. When you catch yourself using the word "just" as an introductory statement, it can be a signal that you're undervaluing yourself in the exchange. Ask yourself: What's happening under the surface? Then reframe the conversation by focusing on what you want to happen as a result of the email or conversation.

The more authentic you can communicate, the better you will express the value you have to offer, says Petry Leanse: "Remind yourself that whatever you want is a legitimate request," she says. "De-emotionalize it and respectfully ask for what you need. Realize that you are offering value that is beneficial for the other person. Use this as your guiding principle, and don't apologize to anyone for asking for it."

After you write your email, Petry Leanse suggests waiting to press "send." Reread what you've written and make sure it's how you want to represent yourself.

"How we use language helps us show up in our best role," she says. "Focus on your intention, and what you want to accomplish. This is an ongoing practice; when you pay attention, you can get better and better over time."

Published on: Oct 6, 2015
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