The Words & Phrases That Cut Your Power in Half

When the late and great Toni Morrison accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature, she said,

We die. Perhaps that is the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.

So how is our society doing in terms of language representing the measure of our lives?

I believe that most of us have challenges with our words. Many of the most articulate people that I know automatically insert words that undermine all they want to accomplish. Some even use ineffective phrases that work against their success. For example, when someone has been given a compliment for doing great work, they respond, “Oh, it was nothing?” What do they mean? I find most often it is, “don’t look at me, don’t pay attention, don’t judge me.” They have just lowered the probability of being complimented again.

Do you know what I mean?

Does that make sense to you?

I’ll try to get the point across and hope this will work.

Um. Maybe I know what you’re thinking.

At least, I’m supposed to know.

Honestly, ah, to be honest, maybe I want a raise.

No problem?



You shouldn’t have.

The words that we use directly impact our success or failure in the world. In our culture, we often use ineffective words because we are too lazy to do better. Or, we are quite uncomfortable with leaving any space in our narrative. And yet, the greatest musicians in the world pay just as much attention to the value of space rather than using only notes.

Years ago, I had a colleague who began pestering me about using the word, “utterly.” It wasn’t enough to just be sad. I wanted everyone to know I was utterly sad. He suggested that every time I used the word utterly, I was to give him $10. I laughed and said, “I’ll agree to that if you give me $10 every time you say, “Amazing.” By the end of the month, we were even in handing each other money. However, both of us had stopped using these fallback words.

Before we open the doors to a new 12-step meeting, let’s review some of the worst junk words and phrases in play today:

Kind of

Conveys lack of conviction, confusion, aimlessness.


Don’t count on me. I’ll try saving you from getting run over by a car.


Don’t count on me again. “Maybe I’ll come with you?”

Sort of

You haven’t decided what it is at all. Is this “sort of” healthy? Like I think that “sort of healthy” is one box from Donut Princess rather than two.

Can I

We love this mind bleep. You are looking at a Matcha Tea Donut at Princess Donut and you are saying, “Can I have this Matcha Donut?” Dude, is the guy boxing donuts going to tell you, “No you cannot?”


This is my #1 most disliked word in the human equation. The only time this word might have a bit of value is when we are at the very bottom of the human condition.

Hope is antimatter to action. When we hope things will change, we wait.

On the other hand, optimism is the belief that our actions will cause improvement.

Supposed to

The only purpose of the word “supposed” is to indicate that wherever we are, it is wrong.

You know

Now and then, I will be working with a client on a life-changing and critically important presentation. At one point, I will ask, “You have used the phrase ‘you know’ 26 times since we began. What are we supported to know?”

Junk words are like junk food. Use a favorite once in a great while, just for a deeply satisfying break from being articulate.

Um or Ah

This one indicates just how unsure we are. Or it makes those of us who are sure, appear unsure.


My partner and I were recently having lunch at a fairly upscale restaurant in Beverly Hills. Two young women came to the porch and asked for a menu. One said to the other, “Ew, these entrees are over $20. Like, all I wanted was a salad.”

The problem with like is that it indicates there was a better word that you could not remember.

Honestly or To be Honest

When someone repeatedly says this, then honesty seems like it is the exception rather than the rule.

No Problem

With today’s rapidly dwindling brick and mortar retail war, the sole purpose of a retail worker is to produce a superior customer experience. So why is it that we thank someone and they respond, “No problem?”

Really? Thank you for delivering my $100,000 car. No Problem. It is such a pleasure to work with you. No problem.

No problem takes whatever enthusiasm someone has been given and crumbles the whole experience down to nonchalance.

The most common reason we use junk words is fear. We are afraid to be a man or woman of few words. But, men and women of power, whose style is to use few words, do not fill in the spaces with junk. Consequently, whenever they speak, everyone listens.

Want to get over it?

Have someone close to you make a deal. Anytime you use a junk word in a sentence, you are to give them $10. This can be used to buy lunch, give to a charity, whatever is designated. By the time most of us have paid out $50, we have changed the pattern. However, even if you pay out $500, it is well worth the price because people will listen to you more carefully. More people will respect what you say. And, you will eventually realize you have become more skilled and more confident in how you present yourself. And that, my friends, will be utterly amazing! 


David Harder
David Harder
DAVID founded Inspired Work in 1990, which has helped over 42,000 professionals transform their relationship towards work. Individuals from all walks of life attend Inspired Work’s public programs to launch new careers, new business or to become more successful in their existing role. He views work as a profound opportunity to become more fulfilled, contributive and effective. Mr. Harder’s leadership, employee engagement, executive development and social networking programs are used in a wide variety of organizations including The Walt Disney Company, HBO, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Loyola Marymount University, University of Southern California, The United Church of Religious Science, Morgan Stanley, and many others. Inspired Work’s leadership programs, career development and team building programs produce some of the worlds most outstanding satisfaction numbers in any business: 92.6% out of a hundred. David has appeared on many business and human-interest programs including CNN, KTLA News, KFWB News and Business News Network. David’s book, new book, The Workplace Engagement Solution (Career Press) offers an entire “crack-the-code” approach to engagement.

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  1. David,
    As a lover of words, I was pleased to read and enjoyed your article. I found it to be very relatable and giggled at a few statements too. The images of words deserve the value and praise they are capable of and when used in a well articulated and preferably delightful manner! Impact. Thank you so much for sharing. Have a delightful day! Paula

  2. OMG, golly gee, wowsa, yikes, like I’m loving this — utterly wonderful article, David! My favorite or non-favorite is the “no problem” in response to thank you. I shudder each time I hear it, knowing that the other person is trying to say “you’re welcome,” but not using those words.

    My second choice is anything connected to honestly. My mind immediately goes to the other side — what! Weren’t you being honest earlier?

    A terrific read, and thanks so much, David!

  3. I had to read and re-read your article David, and it certainly challenged many of my own thoughts.

    I beg to differ in some of your remarks, but I was saddened to note that the #1 word you disliked was HOPE.

    Factually, it is the most Powerful and Significant word in the English Language. Right from the start of civilization Hope has been the driving force. In ALL spiritual and religious aspects, Hope is the center point from which we all can face each tomorrow. I am sure we can debate on its significance, but I can truly state that Hope is a word that can be over used and yet not used enough. When I think of all the words, I say that it represents what keeps a person wanting to live, nothing is more powerful than the word hope. Whether we know it or not, something called hope is down on the inside somewhere giving us the necessary energy to keep going another day. Yes, it may be hard to believe that many great things in life all evolved on such a simple yet powerful word.

    Some of the truly best actions from human beings, all revolve around hope. Hope Is perhaps one of the most powerful Weapons we have
    Hope by definition means a confident expectation based on something solid. Hope also means that something is “possible” based on sure knowledge or statics. Hope contributes to well-being, motivate the achievement of goals, and inspire courageous action, among other things.

    In a world where our needs and desires are so often met with uncertainty, hope tends to emerge. Philosophy has much to contribute to understanding this phenomenon, and the potential value and risks of hope to all aspects of our lives: personally, socially, morally, intellectually, religiously, politically and more.

    I do sincerely hope you will delete this powerful word from your list of dislikes.

    “Everything that is done in this world is done by hope.” Martin Luther

    “It’s always something, to know you’ve done the most you could. But, don’t leave off hoping, or it’s of no use doing anything. Hope, hope to the last!” —Charles Dickens.

    “Hope is the last thing ever lost.” —Italian proverb.

    • Hello Jonathan,

      I appreciate the thought and care you have invested in your comments. I am not at war with hope! The challenge is that hope is being used in circumstances that require action. About half of our countries workers are underemployed. They will not hope their way into full employment. We are at a place in time where far too many of us are waiting for someone or something. I am all for hope when it is applied to God, the Universe, or someone who merits my trust. Arieti once said, “The world’s mental institutions are filled with creative thinkers.” True creativity requires action and optimism is the belief that our actions will produce good. Hope is great for the moment when we have done everything we can.

      Again, thank you.

      David Harder

    • Thank you kindly David. I can now understand your point of view within its given context – but then I commented on the expansive meaning of the word and its importance. I appreciate what you have shared and I too, would refrain from the cliches and the nonsensical repetitive usage of many phrases.

      I also appreciate that people who do not have English as their mother tongue, may have a different ‘understanding’ to the many nuances of different words – not many can easily differentiate from simple words eg. Wound…

      Thank you for your explanation David, and I look forward to reading more of your posts.

  4. David, I love the article. I believe our selection of words reflects who we are as individuals and the impression we want to give others. I would love see a follow up article from you on alternatives to the poor phrases you mentioned. Continue the great writing and wisdom.

  5. Normally we don’t pay much attention to the words we use. We tend to believe that we choose them at random, as required by the circumstances, but in reality it has been shown that everyone has a unique way of speaking, as if it were a “verbal trace”.
    Without a doubt, words have a strong impact because they not only serve to describe the world but also end up creating our own. The wrong words have the power to bring us down, but the right ones can inspire us, lift us up and push us and revolutionize our lives.