Are You Undermining Yourself with Your Speech Habits?

I recently came across a short but brilliant video that was released this past summer by Pantene (yes, the hair product company) as part of their Shine Strong campaign. If you haven’t seen it, “Sorry - Not Sorry” is a powerful one minute montage that pointedly showcases how often women needlessly, yet continually, apologize in everyday situations. It’s really an interesting and worthwhile watch! 

As I played the video a few times through, I became more and more intrigued and began to consider whether or not there are other ways that we unwittingly employ language as a means to soften our communication, mitigate opportunities for conflict and attempt to make ourselves more “likeable.”

Over the next few days, I sought out some additional literature on the subject, while also immersing myself in a mini qualitative research project. I set myself on high alert with very curious ears as I interacted with female friends, clients and colleagues.

So, What Are We Saying?   

It just so happens that outside of “sorry,” there are countless other verbal tactics we use to try to ensure our thoughts and opinions land a little more gently and inoffensively. These speaking patterns tend to be slight and would generally go unnoticed by most (although after reading this, you’re sure to notice them a whole lot more).  

 In her ceiling-busting new book, Playing Big, leadership expert Tara Mohr takes a deep dive into this very topic and neatly classifies undermining speech habits into easily digestible categories. While some of these are summarized below, I highly recommend reading Tara’s insightful book for more fulsome explanations and broader context.

Hedges + Shrinkers

  • Just: “I’m just concerned that…”
  • Actually: “I actually have a question…” 
  • Kind of: “I kind of think we should consider this…” 
  • Almost: “I almost wonder if that is the right way to go…”

Hedges and shrinkers are often used to proactively diffuse any perceived aggression or abrasiveness, as well as to ease our discomfort in presenting a new idea or making a bold suggestion. As food for thought, Tara poses this question: “Can you picture any leader you admire saying to her team, I kind of think we should…?”


  • Sorry, but: “Sorry to interrupt, but… 
  • Just a minute: “If I could take just a minute of your time…”
  • A little bit: “If I could tell you a little bit about my project…"

Of course, the caveat remains that there will always be times when an apology is indeed the only appropriate response, along with many situations that will demand a more delicate approach. However, for many people, apologizing is a deeply ingrained, unconscious and reflexive habit.  It’s really a matter of learning to save “sorry” for mistakes and hurt feelings, rather than for taking up space or asking valid questions.  

Qualifiers + Disclaimers

  • “I’m no expert, but…” 
  • “I could be wrong, but…”
  • “I’m just thinking off the top of my head…” 
  • “Does that make sense?” 
  • “Do you know what I mean?"

Many of us have been socialized and conditioned to be humble. In the same way we find it difficult to proudly share our accomplishments, some of us also find it tough to truly own our unique insights, ingenuity and creativity in a public forum. Downplaying our qualifications and vocally questioning ourselves somehow makes sharing feel safer.

Statements Pretending to Be Questions

According to Tara, we often couch our statements in questions because we are actively trying to avoid conflict, visibility and claiming power. For example, “What about increasing the marketing budget?” vs. “I really think we need to increase the marketing budget.”

The problem is that when you’re constantly asking questions, as opposed to confidently asserting your recommendations and suggestions, you are unintentionally positioning yourself as someone who doesn’t contribute in a meaningful or memorable way. And as a result, you’re unlikely to get any credit for the ideas you’re “asking” about in the long run.

The Unintended Side Effects of Being Likeable

Via my social experiment - the sheer amount of apologies and qualifiers I encountered, along with some healthy doses of subtle self-deprecation, were fascinating (from myself included!). Yet, what many of us don’t realize is that by apologizing unnecessarily, hiding our ideas behind questions and diluting our opinions in order to play nice with others, we may be doing more harm than good – particularly in a professional context. 

Paradoxically, while we are consciously seeking to be warm, polite, conciliatory and collaborative, we are often unconsciously diminishing our credibility, hindering opportunities for advancement and compromising our authenticity. As author Paulo Coelho has cautioned, “Never try to please everyone; if you do, you will be respected by no one.” In our efforts to be amicable, we can convey uncertainty, tentativeness and self-doubt to our listeners - none of which are coveted leadership traits.

That said, friendliness and likeability don’t need to be sacrificed in order to project more confidence and competence. Exuding more warmth through verbal and nonverbal communication, while simultaneously minimizing unhelpful speech patterns, can go a long way in terms of achieving a finer balance.  Conveying warmth is really just a simple matter of being genuine, being generous and being human.

In the timeless words of Dr. Maya Angelou, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Do you have any undermining speech habits? Please share them and your other thoughts in the comments below!