“Just” Say No

This article also appears in Business Insider, where it has received more than 4m views and inspired hundreds of response pieces. Clearly, words like “just” strike a chord – and help us raise awareness of thought and speech patterns we’d otherwise ignore. What other common words signal something other than clarity and strength?                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 … 

A few years back I noticed something: the frequency with which the word “just” appeared in email and conversation from female coworkers and friends.

“I just wanted to check in on …”

“Just wondering if you’d decided between …”

“If you can just give me an answer, then …”

“I’m just following up on …”

I started paying attention, at work and beyond. It didn’t take long to sense something I hadn’t noticed before: Women used just more often than men.

It was a hunch — I had no data. Yet even if it was selective listening, it seemed I was hearing just three to four times more frequently from women than men.

It hit me that there was something about the word I didn’t like. It was a “permission” word, in a way — a warm-up to a request, an apology for interrupting, a shy knock on a door before asking “Can I get something I need from you?”

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was a “child” word, to riff Transactional Analysis. As such it put the conversation partner into the “parent” position, granting them more authority and control. And that just didn’t make sense.

I am all about respectful communication. Yet I began to notice that just wasn’t about being polite: It was a subtle message of subordination, of deference. Sometimes it was self-effacing. Sometimes even duplicitous. As I started really listening, I realized that striking it from a phrase almost always clarified and strengthened the message.

And as I began to pay attention, I was astonished — believe me — at how often I used the word.

I sent a memo to my work teammates about the “J” word and suggested a moratorium on using it. We talked about what it seemed to imply — everyone agreed — and how different that message was from the way we saw ourselves: trusted advisers, true partners, win-win champions of customer success.

We started noticing when and how we used just and outing each other when we slipped. Over time, frequency diminished. And as it did we felt a change in our communication — even our confidence. We didn’t dilute our messages with a word that weakened them.

It was subtle, but small changes can spark big differences. I believe it helped strengthen our conviction, better reflecting the decisiveness, preparedness, and impact that reflected our brand.

Yet just still bugged me. Sure I’d had my little experiment with friends, but I’d acted on a hunch, maybe right, maybe wrong. So I ran a test in the real world.

In a room full of young entrepreneurs, a nice even mix of men and women, I asked two people — a guy and a girl — to each spend three minutes speaking about their startups. I asked them to leave the room to prepare, and while they were gone I asked the audience to secretly tally the number of times they each said the word just.

Sarah went first. Pens moved pretty briskly in the audience’s hands. Some tallied five, some six. When Paul spoke, the pen moved … once. Even the speakers were blown away when we revealed that count.

Now, that’s not research: It’s a mere MVP of a test that likely merits more inquiry, but we all have other work to do.

Plus, maybe now that you’ve read this, you’ll heighten your awareness of that word and find clearer, more confident ways of making your ideas known.

In other words, help take the “J Count” down. Take the word out of your sentences and see if you note a difference in your clarity — and even the beliefs that fuel the things you say.

It’s actually easy, once you start paying attention. Like it? If so, then, to riff Nike … well, “Do it.”

About Ellen Leanse

Coach, catalyst, believer in the audacious. Working every day to align more fully with purpose; loving what happens as people I work with align with theirs. Road-tested entrepreneur, Maker, author. Mom of three sons. Motto: "Think different."

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