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These 5 Phrases Make You Sound Out of Touch

By Joan Feldman

A small shift in your speaking habits can make a big difference, says communications expert and author Jo Anne Preston. Words and phrases that may seem harmless can sow dissonance and tension in your law firm. Here are some alternatives.

Do You Get the Feeling People Don’t Take You Seriously As a Leader?

Do eyes glaze over (or worse, roll) when you begin to speak? Can you recall conversations where your employee seemed to shut down completely? It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re an incompetent leader. More often than you’d guess, it’s that you’re using the wrong words.

Most of us underestimate the power of words, says Jo Anne Preston, author of “Lead the Way in Five Minutes a Day: Sparking High Performance in Yourself and Your Team.” To help people feel respected and motivated, she says, pay close attention not just to what you say but also how you say it.

Some words set us up to be misunderstood. Others shut people down, make them feel excluded, and even make them dislike us.

– Jo Ann Preston

Five Words and Phrases That Get In Your Way (And What to Say Instead)

A small shift in your speaking habits can make a big difference.

When leading a variety of people, it can be difficult to constantly edit yourself and watch your every word. That said, here are a few words Preston says to avoid or at least use less often.

1. Subordinate

It’s hard to imagine anyone using the word subordinate in real life. (“My subordinate will send you the latest draft of the contract”?) But I’m keeping it in as a reminder that using terms that diminish other people will not endear you to them, much less inspire them. It will make you look small and insecure — likely the opposite of what you intend.

For Preston, words like subordinate may be a quick way to distinguish between those in a managerial role and those who answer to them, “but it can make people feel degraded, less important and inferior.”

Instead: Use teammate, assistant or staff, or use actual titles or names. You might even ask people what they prefer.

And that brings us to “nonlawyer.”

“Nonlawyer” has been part of the legal profession’s vocabulary since 1808, annoying the people who work beside and support lawyers for over 200 years. In addition to being a condescending and lazy way to refer to other professionals and staff, when you refer to someone as a negative — defining them by something they lack — you stoke an “us vs. them” mentality.

Every few years, there are calls to banish the word, and the usual discussions ensue. (You never hear a doctor introduce a nurse as a non-doctor or a CEO refer to in-house counsel as non-MBAs.) In “On Better Terms: What Should We Do With ‘Nonlawyer’?”), legal writing expert Kenneth A. Adams breaks down its usage and offers perspective, writing:

Worrying about such nuances might seem ‘politically correct’ or — heaven forbid — ‘woke,’ but I’m willing to revisit the implications of words I use. For example, after receiving some feedback, I don’t use ‘guys’ in speaking to groups with a mix of men and women, and I don’t use ‘stepchild’ to connote neglect. The least I can do in my messaging is not turn a blind eye to the challenges and inequities many of us face.

– Kenneth A. Adams

Instead: Use legal professional, business professional, staff, or actual titles or names. When you must distinguish between those who are licensed to practice law and those who are not, some version of “anyone who is not a lawyer” will do.

2. LDI, HRSA, HIT (Really, Any Acronym)

We all use them, but it is not safe to assume that every person on your team is familiar with their meanings. “Employees may feel foolish if they have to ask,” says Preston, “and when questions go unasked, we don’t speed up at all.”

Instead: Simply say it how you write it the first time — with the spelled-out version followed by the acronym (“the Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA”).

Blah, Blah, Blah

This isn’t a word, per se, but rather how you come across when you use buzzwords, jargon or legalese. As with acronyms, it’s easy to lose people when you do this. Make sure you are not overdoing it, and watch your listener for any glazed-over looks or signs of distraction.

3. ‘I’m a Perfectionist’

If ever a word demanded an eye-roll, this is it.

Everyone has either said it themselves or heard it, but what your associates and others hear is that you expect them to be perfect every time, too. Of course, this is law practice, and anything less than perfect can have big repercussions. But referring to yourself as a perfectionist (or another favorite, “crazy busy”) can keep associates from asking questions or for feedback. All employees, says Preston, should be able to openly discuss their mistakes without fear of ridicule or impossible expectations.

Instead: Learn how to give good feedback.

4. I/Me

When you are invested and passionate about your work, it is too easy to slip into using “I” and “me.”

Instead: Preston suggests simply changing it to the plural, more inclusive “we”/“us” instead.

5. Girls and Guys

“Girls” is obvious, right? “Referring to a department made up of all women as ‘the girls’ will be offensive to most grown women,” says Preston. You may not intend for it to be belittling, but it often feels that way.

“Guys” — one of the most common forms of address — is a harder edit. For many of us, “Hey guys” is a generic greeting. But, as Preston says, saying “you guys” excludes more than half the population. Like “the girls,” it may be hard to see why this matters if you are not the one feeling left out or having to adapt to a description that doesn’t include you.

Instead: Using more inclusive language like “everyone,” “folks,” or even “all” and “y’all” are better options to get a group’s attention, Preston says. (Hey, all! Good morning all! Hey everyone! Good morning, everyone!)

Bonus Tip: Overuse Is Almost as Bad as Misuse

When words are overused, they lose meaning and impact (the word “amazing” comes to mind.) Since 1976, the Lake Superior State University Banished Words List has been naming the most overused words of the year.

For 2024 and 2023 the most overused words are:

20242023
hackGOAT
impactInflection point
at the end of the dayQuiet quitting
rizzGaslighting
slayMoving forward
iconicAmazing
cringe-worthyDoes that make sense?
obsessedIrregardless
side-hustleAbsolutely
wait for itIt is what it is

Here’s the Banished Words entry form for 2025 if you’d like to nominate your favorite.

In her “Get to the Point” column, Teddy Snyder lists some additional phrases that can repel listeners. Read “These Junk Phrases Could Undermine Your Credibility.”

As a Leader, Your Words Have Impact

“Choosing inclusive phrases and using words that lift people up rather than subtly diminishing them goes a long way toward making people like, respect and listen to you,” says Preston. 

Pay attention to how you come across and be sensitive to the feelings of others. You may be surprised at how much this changes people’s outlook.

Photo by T on Unsplash

 

 

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Joan Hamby Feldman Joan Feldman

Joan Feldman is Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder of Attorney at Work, publishing “one really good idea every day” since 2011. She has created and steered myriad leading practice management and trade publications, including the ABA’s Law Practice magazine where she served as managing editor for a dozen years. Joan is a Fellow and served as a Trustee of the College of Law Practice Management. Follow her on LinkedIn and @JoanHFeldman.

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