In honour of International Women’s Day 2022, I wanted to share one of my struggles as a woman: I use mitigating language. I am a serial offender of the double question mark, the over-apology, the ‘just’, the ‘little, the ‘perhaps’. In my professional life, I am notorious for back-tracking, questioning and double-checking with my clients, and repeatedly asking for feedback when there isn’t really any to give.
In my mind, I use mitigating language as a self-defence mechanism. It’s appeasement for requesting something from someone, protecting myself against a potential counterstrike — making myself smaller and more vulnerable in case of an attack. But it’s 2022. And this language needs to stop.
Whilst I fully acknowledge that mitigating language can be used by any and every gender, it is more often than not found in female communication, where typically we are taught to please others, even in the business world. We aren’t traditionally brought up to be domineering, blunt or direct, culture and society instead taught us to how to soften our words and beg for forgiveness in each individual sentence.
‘I hope it’s ok that I…’ ‘Let me know if this is right…’ ‘Sorry about that…’ ‘It’s just a little bit of a problem…’ — All phrases we might be uncomfortably aware of using in our professional lives, whether in an email to a colleague or in a conversation with a client. We use language to make our problems seem smaller than they are as if we are wrong for even having them in the first place. We apologise for taking up space in spaces that are ours to begin with. I’ve even found myself going out of my way to make every form of communication seem friendly and comfortable for the other person, asking about children and holidays and weather in a message that could be a single sentence long.
But where does it get us? Low responsibility roles, passed over promotions and gender gaps a mile wide. We need to do better.
In today’s blog post, I want to highlight some of the areas in which we typically use mitigating language to our own disadvantage, and share some tips on how to train yourself out of these habits for good.
Learn when you need to apologise
One of the most common forms of mitigation in language is the unnecessary apology. For instance, if you need to message a client to find out a piece of information, your instinct might be to open your email with ‘sorry to bother you.’
Let’s break this down: you are working for your client, and they pay you to do this. They didn’t supply you with this piece of information in the first place and it’s stopping you from doing your job, which in turn stops their project from continuing. You need to get this piece of information to help your client — there is absolutely no need to apologise for this. The more we apologise, the more our client might see our emails as burdens, as something to be apologetic for. Instead, simply open with ‘Hope you’re doing ok. I’m working on X at the moment and need this piece of information to continue with it.’ It is still polite and professional, but it reduces the sense of anxiety and uncertainty from the message.
Another trick to try is turning your apologies into thank yous. This is a life hack that’s been circling the internet for a while now but it’s definitely worth trying: simply replace your apology with gratitude. Turn ‘sorry I’m late’ into ‘thank you for waiting’. Turn ‘sorry to be annoying’ into ‘thanks for your patience with this’. Again, removing mitigating language shouldn’t turn us into rude or unpleasant communicators — it simply upholds our authority in the conversation.
Change the way you share requests
Mitigating language tends to breed happily in the world of requests and assignments. Our self-conscious minds run into overdrive as we try to tell others what to do, asking them to complete jobs, meet deadlines, finish tasks…We try to protect our own worrisome reputation by spitting out a collection of ‘if that’s ok’, ‘if you don’t mind’ and ‘if you have time’. We forget our place in this professional setting and we forget that it’s perfectly normal and reasonable to ask a colleague, manager or even an employee to do something for you or your project.
It’s important to understand that, in the end, the completed task is more important than your own insecurity and that how you phrase your request is less of a priority than it being fulfilled. In any job, you will have some element of power and it’s ok to accept this and use this to get the job done.
Learn how to say no
Saying no is one of the biggest fears of a natural-born mitigator. As anxious people-pleasers, the idea of saying no to a request, instruction or demand is terrifying and our urges to mitigate can multiple in response. In order to reduce our mitigating language, it’s crucial to learn that it’s ok to say no — without being disrespectful or rude in the meantime.
If your boss has an idea for a company outing you know won’t be accessible or enjoyable for many of the people in the office, it’s ok to voice your opinion about that, without trying to mitigate it along the way. You don’t have to open with an apology, you don’t have to end with a crying emoji, and you don’t have to blurt out a ‘but I might be wrong’ somewhere in the middle. You can simply say ‘Hi, I just heard the idea for the next outing and I’m concerned it might not be appropriate or accessible for many of the team, who have certain issues or prior commitments. What about X instead?’
In a more direct sense, if someone asks you to take on a task that you know you don’t have time for this week, it’s equally important not to fall into a pit of self-pity and fluster. Instead of writing out a list of all of the reasons you’re a failure at this job and how much your colleague is going to hate you now, why not simply say ‘I’d like to be able to help, but I’m swamped this week. If it doesn’t need to be done urgently, I can look at it next week for you. Or you could see if X has some time’. Your point is made, your time is saved and you didn’t break anyone’s heart. Easy.
Voice your concerns with authority
Sometimes our managers, colleagues and clients make some bad calls. Whether it’s choosing neon green and dirty brown for their new brand palette or starting a marketing campaign with a very outdated slogan, we’ve all been a silent witness to some terrible business making decisions at work. So how do you go about voicing a complaint or a concern without using mitigating language?
Firstly, understand that by voicing these concerns, you aren’t making trouble. You’re not a stirrer, you aren’t making anyone’s life harder and you aren’t trying to ‘go against the grain’. You’re using your experience and skill to make a valid point that might save your business some money, embarrassment, time and energy later down the line.
Then, you need to speak to someone directly in charge of decision making. Don’t waste time moaning to your work bestie over lunch about it, go straight to the top and address your concerns politely but firmly. Try starting with an opener like this: ‘Hi, do you have some time to talk about a concern I had from the last meeting?’. Ideally, this will lead to a scheduled meeting or your superior will be happy to chat right away.
When making your case, try to avoid using the words ‘just’, ‘little’, ‘tiny’, ‘bit’ or ‘maybe’. You can be surprised how often these phrases come up in mitigating language. Instead, just go straight in with ‘so I’m concerned that the impact of this marketing campaign won’t achieve what we’re hoping for. There have been examples of companies in this past that have tried this and it hasn’t worked, and the slogan can be interpreted as outdated and old fashioned. If we’re trying to target this particular audience demographic, I would recommend using X instead’. Not only do you stand a much better chance of being listened to and understood, but you’re also presenting an alternative solution that your boss is more likely to listen to.
Write and edit your messages
Whilst much of our mitigating language does appear verbally, with more and more of us working from home, the way we speak online is equally important to monitor. For the next week or say, try this exercise to estimate just how much you mitigate your language:
– Every time you write something online, whether in an email, a comment on a document, a suggestion, a Slack comment or a note on a team board, read it three times. Then remove any unnecessary words from your sentence. Take out words and sentences that are specifically designed to soften or smooth over the key points of your message, or to make it seem friendlier and less bossy.
The way we write and the way we speak are so unconscious to us that we’re blinded by them, and often don’t pick up on what we’re communicating to others. By taking a few extra seconds or minutes to examine our language from a different point of view, we can gradually become aware of how to change it and improve it.
Learn how to accept apologies
Something that can reveal a lot about a person is how they accept an apology. Some people might react entirely graciously, with easy forgiveness and understanding. Others might react with smugness and arrogance, in knowing they were right all along. In learning how to reduce our mitigating language, something to start paying attention to within ourselves is how we personally respond to apologies.
A mitigator will typically, by default, immediately accept someone else’s apologies with a grand series of waffle including phrases such as ‘oh no, don’t worry about it AT ALL’, ‘no really it was probably my fault’, ‘don’t be silly, I should probably apologise to you’ and ‘it is absolutely fine, no harm done whatsoever.’ In reality, many of these statements are simply untrue. Sometimes a person will make a mistake and it will cause harm to you, your workload, your project or your working environment. Sometimes there isn’t anything you should apologise for. Sometimes the one apologising should be more aware of how their actions affect other people.
Learn to communicate how you actually feel about their apology in a way that is respectful, calm but with intention — you can appreciate their apology without telling them their mistake was ok. You can forgive them whilst still acknowledging their mistake. Try saying ‘thank you for apologising, I appreciate it’ or ‘the problem is solved now, but thanks for saying sorry’. You can acknowledge their apology, without either putting the blame onto yourself or trying to make them feel worse about the situation.
Understand that emojis can mitigate too
If you think you’re ready to simply float away from this blog post, thinking that you’re all set and ready to take on the world, mitigation-free — I’d like you to take a few more minutes to understand the power of emojis. Certain emojis can share certain emotions, vibes, feelings and messages when we use them in a particular context, and can add to our already overwhelming use of mitigating language.
As a general rule, try to avoid any of the ‘smileys’ in professional communication, apart from perhaps the laughing face. Many of the smiley face emojis, including the blushing face, sweat face, nervous face and gritted teeth face are all designed to transmit emotions of anxiety, uncertainty, nerves or insecurity. Even the use of too many simple smiley faces in messages can create an underlying tone of ‘please like me’ from the sender.
Instead, stick to standard, non-emotive emojis where possible, or avoid them completely. A simple thumbs-up emoji can usually symbolise direct understanding, which is typically a good emotion to transmit.
Mitigating your language is an addictive, unconscious habit that can take a while to monitor, recognise and break. It’s not easy trying to un-soften your language and it might feel strange at first to take the ‘niceness’ out of your professional communications, but in the long run, learning the skill of direct communication can help you to feel more confident in yourself, be taken seriously at work, highlight your professional ability and increase your overall sense of authority in the workplace.