Office politics can be overwhelming. As if keeping up with the water cooler gossip and making sure that Debbie from accounts doesn’t have too many glasses of wine at the work Christmas party isn’t enough, there is also an entire language and etiquette that new starters must be quick to learn.
The way that we present ourselves at work is important. No matter how relaxed your workplace is, there are some common sayings that might raise a few eyebrows. Similarly, it’s easy to say something that seems tactful without realizing that you are undermining yourself and shaping others’ opinions of you in unexpected ways.
If you frequently find yourself saying any of these things at work, then there are some alternatives that you can try:
1. Instead of saying “Sorry to bother you,” try saying “I have a question and I’m hoping you can help.”
It can be easy to feel like you’re intruding on others’ time at work, and women are particularly prone to apologizing for doing so. But by saying that you’re sorry, you imply that you are doing something wrong, when that simply isn’t the case. Remember that your colleagues are being paid to be there, and as long as you are conscious of their own commitments and the demands on their time, they should be happy to help you out.
Instead of apologizing for taking up your co-worker’s time, try politely telling them how they can help you. This will make you appear more confident and assertive, and prevent you from suggesting that your requests are an imposition.
2. Instead of saying “We have a problem with…,” try saying “We have a problem and here’s how I think we should address it.”
No one likes being told of an issue that they have to fix, and one of the key mistakes that employees in entry-level roles make is taking problems to their seniors without having thought about how they could be resolved. Although there are some issues serious enough to warrant alerting someone more knowledgeable at once, there are many cases where you should aim to go to your manager with a solution instead of a problem.
Many of us panic when we run up against a problem, but it’s worth taking the time to think about possible options for resolution before you dash to your boss to break the news. Even if you aren’t able to solve something yourself, your colleagues will appreciate you approaching the situation calmly and logically, and taking the initiative to think of possible solutions. They’ll be even more impressed if you’ve managed to come up with a plan, saving them time and worry in the process.
3. Instead of saying “I could be wrong, but…,” try saying “I think that…”
By admitting that your idea is incorrect, you diminish your own credibility and suggest that you lack confidence in your suggestions and decisions. Again, this kind of language is more common amongst women, who are more prone to self-doubt, and tend to use linguistic “hedging,” meaning that they use phrases which undermine themselves and imply uncertainty.
Own the significance of what you are saying by framing it as a statement. This will not only give your colleagues confidence in your ideas, but will help you to reframe your thinking and understand that what you are saying is valuable and worthwhile.
4. Instead of saying “I’ll drop you an email,” say “Let’s find a time to discuss this face-to-face”
One of the most common gripes of office work is how easy it is to end up tied to your inbox, fielding a barrage of emails and managing to get relatively little done. Instead of messaging colleagues or clients back and forth about an issue, consider asking whether a face-to-face discussion would be more effective. Although blocking out time for a meeting might be difficult to do in a busy day, keep in mind that this could an efficient solution compared to sending multiple emails across numerous days.
By suggesting meeting up with others, you will demonstrate that you’re not someone who hides behind a screen, that you feel confident articulating yourself in person, and that you’re prepared to take the time out of your day to focus on a project. It will also give you the opportunity to work on crucial career skills that sometimes get lost in email speak, such as communication and negotiation.
5. Instead of saying “Yes, I can do that” (when you really, really can’t), try saying “I would love to help, but can we discuss how this will fit in with my existing workload?”
Feeling overwhelmed at work can be a serious issue. If you are feeling the pressure of additional tasks piling up when you can barely keep up with your current to-do list, then you might be concerned that point-blank refusing work might not reflect well on you. But remember that you are entitled to pushback if you are already at capacity.
Approach this politely, saying that although you would like to help, you need some guidance on how to fit this in with your current workload. It may be that your boss had no idea how busy you were and will back down and look to reassign the task elsewhere once they realize. If not, asking for their advice on how to prioritize your work will force them to take a look at your workload, assess what is the most effective way for you to focus your time, and manage their own expectations of how much you can reasonably achieve.
6. Instead of saying “I’m really upset that…,” try saying “This is the reason that I disagree with that decision”
Although there are occasions where your emotions are valuable and shouldn’t be hidden away, there are other times when a rational approach is more effective. This is particularly true if you are unhappy with a decision that has been made, or have a gripe with how you are being treated.
Avoid confronting situations if you are feeling particularly raw and emotional about them, and arrange a meeting when you have had time to take a step back and consider. Try to explain in clear and logical terms why you disagree, and why you think that the decision is a negative one. Remember that it’s OK to make it personal — if you feel that a change could be detrimental to you and your well-being then go ahead and say so. Just remember that your words will carry more weight if you are delivering them in a measured and assertive manner and clearly explaining your case.