Whether we’re working remotely, in the office, or some hybrid combination of the two, what we say at work — and how we say it — matters. And not just because speaking clearly and thoughtfully is the most efficient way to pass on whatever it is we’re trying to communicate to our co-workers.
Language is how company culture is reinforced. The words we use also communicate our values. So it only makes sense that how we speak at work also impacts the well-being of those we’re interacting with — even when we’re doing it unwittingly.
Over the last two years, the conversation about mental health and well-being at work has come out from the shadows. And being mindful about our workplace conversation is one key way we can impact others’ well-being in a positive way and create cultures of more resilience and belonging. So here are 11 things that we need to stop saying at work.
“I’m so busy”
Or “I’m slammed.” Or “I’m underwater.” Or anything else that serves as a manifestation of what I call the “Badge of Busy,” in which we proudly wear our relentless busyness as a badge of honor. It’s often a way of communicating to someone else that the only way to be serious about their job is to be, like us, perpetually overscheduled. And it’s also a way to fuel a culture of burnout.
As in giving 110%. This plays into the Badge of Busy. Of course, nobody can actually give 110%, but even when it’s not taken in a literal way, it serves to communicate the idea that doing our best isn’t good enough, and that we should always be operating at a deficit. And that’s not going to help anybody have better life-work integration.
“This is a priority”
Or other ways in which we designate something as urgent when it’s actually… not. Yes, there are times when we really do need to communicate that something’s urgent — which is all the more reason why we should save calling something a priority or urgent for instances when it truly is. Otherwise, we’re just reinforcing an atmosphere where everybody’s operating in fight-or-flight mode.
So-and-so is “OCD”
Or “bipolar.” Or “crazy.” We’ve come a long way in destigmatizing mental health struggles. But there are still small ways in which, even without meaning to, we can communicate the idea that mental health issues or conditions are negative or shameful. This can subtly send the message to those who might actually be struggling with these issues that they should continue to suffer in silence.
“Can you give me a call?”
OK, this one might be more particular to me, since I suffer from anxiety. But nothing makes me more anxious than when someone sends me an email or leaves me a message saying, “Can we talk?” or, “Can you give me a call?” My instant response is: Oh no, I’ve screwed up and it must be something very serious! At that point, no matter what I was doing, I’ve lost my focus and I won’t be getting it back until I’ve solved this obviously serious mystery. It’s much better to give a little context or, being mindful of how it might land, say something like, “Nothing urgent, but give me a call when you have a chance.” Whew — I feel better already!
“Killing it!” “Crushing it!”
Or any language of warfare or violence. Sure, we hear language like this all the time, but framing work or whatever project we’re talking about as a zero-sum game feeds the idea that the end result of every process is a winner and loser. That creates a culture of fear, which is the opposite of a culture of psychological safety that allows people to experiment, make mistakes, learn from those mistakes, and grow.
“Let’s get down to business”
Yes, many of us are drowning in meetings, and we’re all too aware that virtual fatigue is very real. But launching right into the agenda for the meeting or interaction comes at the expense of the time and space needed to actually connect and get to know our co-workers in a human way. I believe in the importance of this so much that I co-wrote (along with Anh Phillips) an entire book about it, Work Better Together. As study after study shows, the strength of our relationships is the essential factor not just in our success at work, but in how much we thrive in all parts of our lives. So yes, let’s cut down on meetings, but in the meetings we still need to have, let’s make room for connection and building relationships.
Specifically, saying yes when we don’t mean it, or can’t actually take on the task we’re saying yes to. As I’ve found in my own life, boundaries are key to avoiding burnout, and one of the most important tools to help us set boundaries is learning to say no.
“I’ve got it”
Or otherwise signaling that we don’t need help. Learning how to accept the support we need from others is a sign of strength, not weakness. It helps strengthen our work relationships by building trust, which is a critical ingredient in successful teams. Plus, when we’re open, authentic, and vulnerable about asking for help, it empowers others to do the same.
When we’re not actually apologizing. For a lot of us, saying “I’m sorry” is a reflex, but when we over-apologize it weakens expressions of regret when we really mean them. So the best way to maintain the very much-needed utility of saying “I’m sorry” is to save it for when we need it.
[Insert anything negative here]. Our work communication isn’t just about what we say to others. It’s also about the way we talk to ourselves. And self-acceptance and self-compassion are the foundation of self-care. We’re all perfectly imperfect, so when we find ourselves speaking to ourselves in a way that we’d never speak to a colleague or friend, that’s a sign that we need to give ourselves some grace.
And on that note, yes, we’re all going to fall short in the ways that we talk to each other at work. And that’s OK. These are challenging, stressful times and so much about the way we work is changing. But that also gives us an opportunity to help create a workplace that supports our well-being. And one small way to do that is to be more mindful about how we communicate.