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Top Five Self-Sabotaging Phrases To Avoid At Work


It is worthwhile to be aware of a few of the most common self-sabotaging phrases that can affect how you are perceived in the workplace.

Communication skills and good language are important in the work place, even for physicians. Often, in a physician’s busy workday, sending emails and leaving voice messages, tasks that are obviously not as critical as patient care, can be hurried afterthoughts. Yet, while there is a classic image of a doctor so competent that communication skills are irrelevant, the truth is that few doctors are immune from being judged based on communication style. While it is too time consuming to carefully craft every email, it is worthwhile to be aware of a few of the most common self-sabotaging phrases that can affect how you are perceived in the workplace. A few simple substitutions relay a more professional sense of confidence and maintain your competent image.


Some individuals use the word sorry when they aren’t really sorry. ‘I'm sorry’ is a phrase that should be use to apologize for deliberately or accidentally causing harm, inconvenience, or insult. But saying sorry for taking your turn to speak or as a preface to an action that you are entitled to sends a message that you are not indeed entitled to speak or take that action. This can make you appear to be doing something that you really don't deserve to be doing. Sometimes, an unnecessary or ill placed ‘sorry’ may, in fact, come across as passive- aggressive, which is an attitude that breeds mistrust and that most people don't want to deal with.

What to say instead- If you really are sorry, then by all means, you should clearly apologize. But if you are just doing what you are entitled to, then you should just do it without prefacing with an apology. If you have to preface your speech or action, then just clearly announce your planned action without the word sorry.

I'm Confused

This phrase really sends a message that you just don't get anything about the subject at hand. Chances are that you are not truly baffled, but just need to clarify a few points. This phrase, often used as a question, leaves the recipient completely responsible for explaining the whole entire situation to you- from A to Z. And that means that you are probably in over your head and shouldn't be in the situation in the first place.

What to say instead- It is a good idea to demonstrate that you have put effort into understanding the subject and to specifically ask, 'I want to clarify xyz,' which gives a clear message that you need clarification about specific points. In fact, even if the overarching purpose at hand is truly unclear, you can still communicate that in a more professional way by saying something like, 'can we clarify the purpose of this project?'

Sorry For the Long Message

If it takes you a long post or a long email to get your point across, then there is nothing wrong with that. Your words are important. If you can edit a bit, then maybe you should. But, if you have something to say, then you are absolutely entitled to say it, even if your post, email or announcement is lengthy. And nobody is forced to read the whole thing if they don't want to, so there is no need to justify yourself.

What to say instead- If you have a lot you must say to explain your message, perhaps you can divide your message into points and give notice of your points in advance. For example, 'there is a lot to say' or 'this covers several points.'

I'm Not Sure if this is Stupid, But...

Why would you need to ask someone if your question, comment, or concern is stupid? It is almost certain that you are not stupid and that what you are about to say is not stupid. Most of the time, this opening is met with a polite answer of, 'no that isn't stupid at all.' In the meantime; however, the listener is making an observation about your self-confidence that prevents you from being seen as decisive and competent at work.

What to say instead- If you aren't sure about whether your comment or question is redundant or has already been clarified elsewhere, you can simply say, 'has this been covered already, and if so, where can I find this information?'

Please Advise

This is an interesting phrase that came into vogue a few years ago in the professional setting. It generally has been interpreted to mean, 'you really are leaving me with a mess, how do you suggest I deal with it?' Overall, it is not considered a way of genuinely asking for advice. Since this phrase can be interpreted as blunt or sarcastic, you may later regret having used it, particularly if the response is not hostile (the response is likely to be polite, which can be embarrassing for you.).

What to say instead- If you really feel that the person with whom you are dealing is incompetent, try a more understanding approach, as you are likely to be pleasantly surprised when some aspects of the situation are clarified. A better approach could be, 'I would like your option about what steps to take next.'

As a physician, your knowledge and competence are valuable assets. You don't need to spend an inordinate time on communication to make a good impression. But a few key phrases can help transform an email, message or conversation in a way that clearly represents you as a confident and respected professional.

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Victor J. Dzau, MD, gives expert advice
Victor J. Dzau, MD, gives expert advice