BY Fast Company Contributor 4 MINUTE READ

By leaving diminishing words behind and choosing words that are more impactful and inspirational, we can change the outcome of 2021, creating a much more hopeful, proactive path forward.

It’s probably safe to say that few people were sad to leave the “unprecedented” 2020 behind. While it provided a new perspective on life in general, it also left a lasting impact on many of the words we chose in our communications. The year minimized and diminished our choices, and it’s important not to go into 2021 with a vocabulary that perpetuates the experience, says Terre Short, leadership coach and author of The Words We Choose: Your Guide to How and Why Words Matter.

“Choosing the right words has never been more important,” she says. “With racial injustice, and a struggle with truth and reality and a lack thereof, we’re more in tune with each other than before. 2021 has to be about word choices. By leaving diminishing words behind and choosing words that are more impactful and inspirational, we can change the outcome of 2021, creating a much more hopeful, proactive path forward.”

To provide guidance, Short created a list of 10 words and phrases to leave behind:

1. IF

“If” casts doubt and is vague; it can easily be replaced with “when” in most circumstances. “We spent 2020 wondering if we would ever do certain things again, like be in a crowd, shake hands, or hug,” says Short. “We will do those things, and we must start speaking in terms of when. ‘If’ comes from a place of burden and apprehensiveness. ‘When’ is hopeful. We had enough uncertainty in 2020 to last many years. It’s time for us to be certain.”


Using a justifier like “I think” introduces uncertainty. For example, a leader may tell their team, “I think we’ll be doing better in the next quarter.” “Leaders are getting paid to know,” says Short. “When we say ‘I think,’ we insert doubt and suggest a lack of confidence, knowledge, and ownership. Remove ‘I think’ and proceed with whatever comes next. You project more confidence when you own the message.”


“Just” is the great minimizer when used as an adverb, says Short. It means “barely” or “only,” especially when you’re referring to yourself or your position. “‘Just’ brings no value to a description,” she says. “Saying ‘I’m just the administrative assistant’ nicks away at your sense of self and minimizes your contribution in the eyes of another person.”


While there are times when enough is okay, we don’t need to settle for sufficiency in 2021. We need experiences where we’re busting out beyond enough. “‘Enough’ offers a sense of mediocrity, meeting in the middle,” says Short. “It limits you, and 2021 can’t be about that. We want more than enough.”


When you choose words such as “should,” you suggest an obligation or burden, says Short. “We usually say this to ourselves,” she says. “For example, ‘I should do this.’ ‘Have to’ is similar. Instead, use the phrase ‘I get to.’ It comes from a place of gratitude for the effort and moves away from the burden.”


People want clarity and accountability, and adding the word “might” in your messaging does not provide either, says Short. “It reminds me of Yoda saying, ‘Do or do not. There is no try,’” she says. “‘Might’ comes from a place of apprehension. Consider why that is. If your apprehension serves no purpose, step into a more assertive word choice, such as ‘I will’ or “We will.’”


“Pretty” is another adverb that diminishes your message and is unnecessary. For example, you might say, “I’m pretty sure we will hit that goal.” “In 2021, we need to get beyond hedging,” says Short. “If you are unsure, you are better off clarifying the degree of uncertainty instead. Say, ‘I’m 75% certain we will hit our goal.’”

8. BUT

The word “but” derails a message and severs whatever comes before it. Replace “but” with a better joiner—”and.” “When I offer ‘and,’ I’m extending the conversation and moving forward collaboratively,” says Short. “‘And’ means we are moving together in a positive direction.”


When you use this phrase, you are throwing up your hands and choosing to be a victim. Resilience, on the other hand, is finding what you can control and reframing a situation. “In 2020, we learned we were capable of reframing just about anything, from how we work to where we work,” says Short. “When you say, ‘There’s nothing I can do about it,’ you insert a lack of control. Instead, focus on what you can do.”


When you tell someone, “You don’t understand,” you limit access and openness to another perspective. “We’ve all had our own unique past experiences, or you may think you know better,” says Short. “This phrase serves no purpose. Instead, move forward and open up to the potential that exists in 2021. Invite another person’s perspective. It’s our collective understanding and experiences that can propel us forward.”


Recognize yourself in any of these words and phrases? Short recommends choosing the top two or three that are part of your lexicon and commit to leaving them behind.

“It may result in a little stuttering and stopping yourself as your talk,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to practice a pause. It slows you down. In 2021, we could all use a little more pausing. When you are intentional with your word choices, you abandon the minimizing and limiting of your potential and represent yourself as confident and certain. You can inspire others.”


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