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Want to sound more assertive? Ditch these 4 phrases that make you look ‘weak or timid’: Word experts


We all have skills, opinions and ideas that we feel confident about. But whether or not other people — a boss, colleague, friend, partner or new acquaintance — feel the same depends on how you communicate.

Are you passive and let other people steamroll over you? Are you aggressive and make enemies instead of friends? Or are you passive-aggressive and irritate others by being unclear? None of these are qualities will help you sound confident.

The key is to be assertive without being overly aggressive, and you can do that by avoiding these four phrases that make you sound weak or timid:

1. “I’m sorry to ask this, but…”

When you use apologetic words (e.g., “I’m sorry, I have one last question” or “Maybe it’s just me, but…”), it can sound like you’re putting yourself down. Or it can downplay a request that you’re trying to make.

You’re better off skipping the intros. Don’t say: “I’m sorry to bother you, but can you share the report you made for the team meeting?” Just get to the request: “Can you share the report you made for the team meeting?”

Then close with a “thank you.”

2. “I could do that.”

Verbs are action words. They tell people what you’re doing or what you’re going to do. To appear stronger, choose verbs that clearly state your intentions.

For example, “will” is much stronger than “could.” Instead of “I could do that,” say “I will do that.”

Similarly, when you ask for something, “I need” is much stronger than “I want.” Why? Because you don’t want an assistant; you need an assistant. 

3. “You need to…”

When you start a request with a “you”-based statement (e.g., “You make me…” or “You cannot…”), it can come across as controlling behavior, which is sometimes the result of fear or insecurity.

“I”-based statements, however, can help you communicate how you’re feeling or what you want, without it sounding like an attack.

For example, “You need to get started on that project” sounds more commanding than the equally assertive “I’d like it if you started on that project.”

Always lead with your own feelings or actions.

4. “You always…” (or “You never…”)

Generalizations typically lead to arguments because they can cause the other person to get defensive.

If you’re unhappy about something, be specific. Instead of saying “You always forget meetings,” say “I was upset when you showed up late to Thursday’s meeting.”

You also don’t want to assign all of the blame to one person: “You ruined the presentation by not being there!”

Instead, describe the situation accurately: “By coming 10 minutes late, you made the presentation more difficult by distracting the audience.” This gives you a reputation for fairness and helps the other person see where they can improve.

More ways to sound assertive without being overly aggressive

Being thoughtful and intentional in the way you communicate will go a long way in earning respect. Here are some additional tips to keep in mind:

  1. Say “because” when you refuse a request. It softens the “no” and confidently explains your reasoning. Instead of saying “I can’t do it,” say “I can’t do that today, because I need to prepare for a meeting this afternoon.” (Bonus points if you offer a potential solution: “How about I do that on Tuesday?”)
  2. Say “I understand” when you disagree with someone. Instead of cutting right to the chase about why you think someone is wrong, start with a softener like “I see your point” or “I get what you’re driving at.”
  3. Start with empathy. When you’re turning someone down, let them know you understand how it affects them. “I know you are busy and stressed out, but I really don’t have the time today.”
  4. When you explain a problem, use conditional statements. Follow this format: “If you do [X], then [Y] happens.” For example: “When the report wasn’t finished in time, it created a problem for the team’s sales presentation.” This helps you take the emotion out of the problem and focus on the solution. 

Kathy and Ross Petras are the brother-and-sister co-authors of the NYT bestseller “You’re Saying it Wrong,” as well as “Awkword Moments″ and “That Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means.” They co-host NPR’s award-winning podcast “You’re Saying It Wrong.” Their newest book, “A History of the World Through Body Parts,” is a quirky history of things you didn’t learn through textbooks. Follow them on Twitter @kandrpetras.

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