Say What You Mean

What You Say Gives You Away

Has anyone ever asked you to do something and you reluctantly replied “I’ll try”? That person may have walked away wondering whether you were really going to make the effort. Perhaps you’ve been on the receiving end of a compliment that went something like this: “You did a nice job but next time I think you should…” Most likely it was the second half of that sentence that you remembered.

Does what you say convey what you truly mean? The words we use indicate what we believe or intend to do. There are two language cues in particular that are dead give-aways for a contradictory message being communicated.

Don't Dilute The Message

Excessive use of the words “I’ll try” and “but” qualifies what you are saying and in effect dilutes your message. Let’s take a look.

The first language cue is: I’ll try. These words often signal a commitment that is lacking. When I hear “I’ll try” during a coaching conversation, I check to see if the person: a) truly wants to do what he (or she) says he will try to do, b) intends to do it, and c) believes that it is possible.

Saying I’ll try is stopping short of saying I’ll do it. It’s as if you are telling yourself and the person to whom you are speaking: I’ll try but I don’t really think I’ll succeed. Certainly genuine effort – the act of trying – matters. In fact, it is your effort, not the outcome that you can control. What I’m suggesting is that you avoid saying I’ll try as an automatic, nebulous response. Redefine the level of commitment that you are willing to make. For example, instead of saying, “I’ll try to stop doing that,” it is stronger to say, “I promise to be more aware of when I do that.”

When it comes to something you genuinely want and are ready to do, notice how “upping your language” reinforces your willingness to commit to specific action. It’s the difference between saying, “I’ll try to get to it,” vs. “I’ll spend a few hours reviewing this before we talk next.”

In addition to responding to direct requests, this also applies to other times you might typically use the word try. For example, rather than saying, “I’m trying to be a better listener,” say, “I’m learning to be a better listener,” or “I’m practicing being a better listener.” The emphasis then becomes the progress being made and not just the attempting.

The second language cue is: But… I’ve heard it said that the word “but” has the effect of negating everything that precedes it. At the very least, it diminishes it. Notice the difference between the following two statements:

Your knowledge of the subject is impressive but your presentation would be stronger if you focus on a few key points.

Your knowledge of the subject is impressive and if you focus on a few key points, it will make your presentation stronger.

When you replace the word “but” with “and” or simply pause before continuing, it gives both parts of your statement equal weight.

Say What You Mean

Becoming aware of the words you use will help clarify your own intention and make the message you are communicating more easily understood.

Begin this week by noticing when you use the words “I’ll try” or “but”. Make your language more effective by removing these qualifiers and saying what you mean.

“The language of truth is unadorned and always simple.”
–Marcellinus Ammianus

Here's to you,

© 2008, Virginia M. Kravitz and In the Current®. All Rights Reserved. You are welcome to reproduce this article provided it is without any alteration, includes the copyright above, and if distributing electronically includes a link to

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