The Psychology of Weak Language

One of the things I listen closely for in our workshops is a certain kind of vocabulary that we call “weak” or “qualifying” language. And when I hear it, my coaching sensors start ringing loudly. Words or phrases like “sort of,” “kind of,” “pretty much,” or “basically,” can be toxic for the speaker and dramatically reduce the chances for persuasion.

Some classic examples that I hear all the time:

“We are sort of ready for the next phase.”

“We are pretty much on budget.”

“We are basically on schedule.”

In each example, what I hear, and what your audience likely hears is “this actually isn’t true, I don’t believe it myself, and you should have a low level of confidence in what I am saying.”

If you hear this kind of weak language in yourself or in others, look for opportunities to correct the problem and eliminate it as quickly as possible. Why? Because if you are trying to persuade anyone of anything, your lack of conviction that this language clearly telegraphs will lessen the level of confidence or urgency that the listener will get.

A more interesting question is why do we speak this way? There are probably several different answers that range from the psychological to the lack of practice to a lack of awareness about what good speaking actually is. But where I want to focus is on the psychological. I am not a psychologist, (and no, I don’t play one on television) but my colleagues and I coach and train thousands of people each year. So we see and hear a lot. And from my perspective, the psychology of the weak language often comes from an unwillingness to be too direct or forceful. People weaken their language to soften themselves, to round off their own edges, to avoid overwhelming their audience.

I would never advocate an approach that might overwhelm your audience or be too forceful. But I think there are better ways to soften your approach rather than saying “pretty much” or “basically.” You can use direct language and clear vocabulary, but soften the impact through tone of voice or volume changes. You can soften the delivery through friendly and engaging facial expression, and through inclusive and collaborative language. If you want to avoid being too forceful, weak language does not solve that problem. It creates a different one, one that creates a sense of indecisiveness or lack of conviction.

Be aware of the vocabulary you choose, and also be aware of how those vocabulary choices can impact the audience experience with you. If you need to soften the edges, then soften in other ways, not through weak vocabulary.

Good luck!

Does your team:
– Take too long to make decision?
– Fail to ask for what it wants or needs from you?
– Make things too complicated?
– Deliver unconvincing or disorganized presentations?
– Have new hires who are unprepared to communicate in the workplace?

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One response to “The Psychology of Weak Language”

  1. Travis Langston says:

    Just a few thoughts. From my standpoint I admit to using what is being termed qualifying language. However, it’s normally in a team setting with peers or with management a rung or two higher than myself, and I then proceed to explain why something is not ironclad. I also tend to dislike absolute statements from speakers. If anything, too many absolute statements erode my confidence in them. As an employee I appreciate frank honesty, even if it involves bad news, a difficult topic, or a complex process where there are risks or multiple possible points of failure. Very few things are truly simple, and that generally includes business processes and technology.

    I don’t say any of this to take away from this post, just to illustrate how someone may perceive a speaker differently depending on what sort of statements are made, even when made confidently with strong language. I greatly enjoy reading the posts the Latimer Group team creates.

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Brett Slater

A book about change

The Latimer Group’s CEO Dean Brenner is a noted keynote speaker and author on the subject of persuasive communication. He has written three books, including Persuaded, in which he details how communication can transform organizations into highly effective, creative, transparent environments that succeed at every level.