Maybe you feel like I do: even if you’ve been working through the summer, September energy feels like it’s all about getting back to work and reconnecting with your doer, worker-bee self.

In that spirit, today I want to talk about a super easy way you can play bigger this year.

Your words, honey. What comes out of your mouth and the words you typey type and send off into the world.

Our words are our opportunity. That opportunity is bigger than ever before because women are more literate than ever before and have access to technology — from laptops to email — that amplify our communication.

But we often do these “little” things that undermine our words –“little” mistakes with big impact:

1. RUSHING. Pauses! Pauses are so important. Breathing for a little micro-pause between your sentences conveys a sense of confidence and authority. Speaking at a slightly slower pace does the same.

Why do we rush? We rush because we are trying to avoid being interrupted. We rush because we unconsciously feel apologetic about “taking up space.” To the listener, we just sound nervous and like we don’t think what we are saying is worth much time.

What to do instead: Slow down and get in the habit of allowing micro-pauses between your sentences.

2. “SHRINKERS” that lessen the power of what you have to say: words like “just” and “actually.”

“I just think…”
“I actually have a question…”

Notice how “just” shrinks or qualifies what comes next? Notice how “actually” makes the speaker sound like she’s surprised that she has a question?”

Why do we use shrinkers? We unconsciously feel nervous and apologetic about whatever we are getting ready to say (because most women got the message we should people-please and acquiesce), and so we tentatively insert our ideas into the conversation. We are worried that if we don’t have those words, we’ll sound “too aggressive” or “harsh” or not nice.

What to do instead: Remove those words and your statements sound much stronger. You can keep a sense of kindness and diplomacy in your words through your tone, word choice and facial expressions – better options than shrinkers.

3. “DID THAT MAKE SENSE?” This one drives me CRAZY! (I do it too.) Isn’t the world giving women enough messages that they don’t make sense? Do we really have to reinforce that to ourselves?

Here’s how this one works: You share a paragraph of ideas or questions or feelings and then say, “Did that make sense?” In an intimate personal conversation, that’s one thing, but in a professional context, this makes us sound like we think we weren’t clear, like we think our ideas might be nonsensical and confused. Not a good foundation for influencing the listeners.

Why do we do this? We protect ourselves from being told, “that made no sense” by suggesting ourselves that maybe we were incoherent. We pre-empt criticism from others.  Or, we say it because we are attempting to make what I call a “bid for connection” with our audience: we want to invite conversation, and it feels like this question is an easy way to do that.

What to do instead: In a professional context, reconnect with your listener through eye contact and a closing line like, “I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this.” That’s a bids for connection that doesn’t simultaneously undermine you. It is the listeners’ job to ask questions if something didn’t make sense to them – not your job to double check if you “made sense.”

Those are three of more than 15 “little” things women do in their speech that undermines their words. We talk about all 15 of them in my comprehensive Playing Big program. I love seeing the 15 lightbulb moments for women changing how they communicate, and then seeing the big results of those changes in their careers.

But today, I want to know from YOU:

What unhelpful little speech patterns do you notice in yourself and others?


Lots of love,



photo credit: Jens Kreuter


Join the discussion 50 Comments

  • Sandi says:

    I rush….all the time. And I use “actually” a lot. Thanks for these tips.

  • Robin says:

    Trying to stop saying “sorry” at the beginning,middle or end of a sentence! Don’t have reason to apologize so why do I put that one in there???

  • Rachel says:

    Love this post – I catch myself “shrinking” my thoughts/feelings and knowledge/abilities in conversation ALL THE TIME! And I’m aware, which annoys me more. I also notice that even if I’m not doing it with my words, my tone and expression are doing it. Thanks for this post!

  • Carmen says:

    This was great. I can’t even tell you how many times I say “Did that make sense?” or “am I making sense?”

  • Kate says:

    I’ve noticed younger women interjecting “uh huh, uh huh” while listening to me speak. At first, I would stop speaking, thinking they were going to make a comment. But no. Just “uh huh, uh huh, uh huh”. I think, to them, they’re supporting your comments. To me, it’s very distracting and just plain rude. Is this a gen x trend?

  • elizabeth says:

    Some of the most common and annoying “fillers” in talking are “um” and “you know.” Affirming words or gestures help when others speak. We could also say things like “does this help you?” instead of the making sense…

  • Alicia says:

    I am so guilty of “does that make sense” or something similar. Thank you for highlighting these self sabotaging words. I’ve recently noticed all of the “just” words in my writing and before I send anything I edit those out. Even if I start something in that voice at least the written word can be revised before clicking send. And paying attention to it in written form helps to clear it out in the spoken words. Really great tips! Thank you!

  • Archana Lee says:

    Yoga teachers often say “does that make sense?” It bothers me because yoga is not really about lots of verbal back and forth between teacher and student, and my preference is for getting the point across nonverbally anyway. Also, you kind of want your teacher to know what makes sense! Just sayin. . .but the question is how to check in without sounding so unsure of yourself.

  • jean says:

    Hi Kate,
    I’m not sure of the context of your comment, I think you’re probably talking about a face to face meeting. I just wanted to mention that – there we go – I used “just”!! At work we’re almost always on calls that involve team members located in other places. So, if I didn’t hear some sound of affirmation from the other end, (of course, not very 5 seconds during my talk), I tend to wonder if they’ve dropped off the call.:)

    On the other hand, its good to know that some people may not find this helpful.

  • sometimes I find myself asking a question and if the person I am asking doesn’t respond quickly enough (by my lights) I will say, “in other words” and ask it a little differently to get a response more quickly..I think when we say “does that make sense” we are looking for validation and already we might be thinking …Oh no this person doesn’t speak my lanquage! why am i wasting my time etc…

  • Lindsay Brechler says:

    Shrinkers I fight in business contexts:
    – I think (can be replaced with It is)
    – Maybe (can be replaced with It is)
    – I’m not sure that it’s (It’s not)
    – In case you’re not (Are you…?)
    – Just (needs no replacement)
    Now adding “Does that make sense?” to the watch list too.

  • Tara ~ I always appreciate reading these tips. I’m a man, and I commit almost all of them. I used to be reluctant to “take up other people’s time” with my thoughts – not a powerful modus operandis for a professor, teacher, writer, or influencer. I often say, “Does that help?”, comparable to “Does that make sense?” which feels insecure.

    As a parent, I’ve broken the habit of saying to my 4-year-old, “Okay?” at the end of request. Now I just make the request. Doing so alleviates her anxiety of having to confirm and also strengthens my position as the parent. 🙂

    (When I was 22 and first teaching college classes, a colleague observed me and counted about 35 “Okays?” in an hour. Humbling.)

    I admire the way you speak in public with such poise and precision. Your deliberate work shows.


  • Carolyn says:

    The one I don’t like but find myself using is “kinda” as in, “I kinda think I disagree . . .” This is not a firm or committed statement and makes it sound as if we’re not sure. I really have to watch myself with this one.

  • Christy says:

    You bring up a good point. I tend to be one of those people that gives a little audible uh-uh when other people are talking, though as Jean mentions, I mostly do this on the phone. I’m not sure where this habit came from (I’m not a GenXer). I have noticed sometimes this throws off whomever is talking (maybe they think I’m trying to interrupt) and they wait for me to interject something more than an uh-uh. I’m really glad you brought this to my attention and I’ll try to be more mindful of it. I agree with Tara that we should get more comfortable with taking a pause between sentences— and in turn, we all should practice becoming better listeners so we resist the urge to jump in and kidnap the conversation whenever there is a slight pause.

  • Toina says:

    I think it is important to stop saying BUT. We should change it to AND. The difference between:
    But, what does that mean? (And) And, what does that mean? Is huge!

    Also the difference between:
    I understand, but… (And) I understand, and.. Is also huge!

    Great post!

  • anon says:

    When others say “that being said …” or “having said that …” this is a very condescending and extremely pompous parenthetical phrase. That one phrase makes me tune out the speaker every time. Not interested in enabling ego-puffing!

  • Caryn Aviv says:

    When we end our sentences with an uptick in pitch, it conveys uncertainty, as if we’re asking a question rather than making a declarative statement. I’ve trained myself to end sentences with an emphasis on a ‘downtick’ in pitch to sound strong, confident, and assured. Gravitas, authority, and owning our power are where it’s at.

  • Leah says:

    All so very helpful. I’ve been cleaning up my speech for a long time and still work on the minute and larger areas of shrinkage and justification. I was big on “you know” everywhere and “like” to fill gaps. I also was heavy into repeating myself at the end of an idea, almost like a “concluding statement” in a high school essay. Bothered me so much but there it was, on automatic!

    I also highly recommend replacing BUT with AND–so much better feeling, so I don’t negate what i’ve just said. It’s another “just.”

    Finally–being quiet before I speak, those pauses are so effective. Thanks!

  • Kim says:

    I used to use a lot of exclamation points. “Thanks!” “Hi!” “So great to see you!” And noticed that a male colleague of mine almost NEVER used exclamation points. His messages felt more assertive and confident to me. Like he could just make a request without cheering people along.

    And I realized that I was using exclamation points as a way to “be nice” or avoid stating things plainly. I worried I’d sound too harsh without exclamation points to show, what, maybe enthusiasm, or friendliness?

    I’ve always been curious to know if women use more exclamation points in men in their written communications. And I’m wondering if others find that exclamation points come off as a way of saying, “Please like me.”

  • Tara,

    I JUST love this ACTUALLY!! (ha ha!) No I really do. I also find myself ‘rushing’ to tell people because others DO jump in and interrupt, so what is the best way to deal with this? I guess it is about striking the right balance, but I do agree that small micro-pauses can be very effective.

    Also, I agree with Leah above, saying ‘yes, and..’ not ‘yes but…’

    I also think some people (I’m talking ME here ) are what I call ‘repeaters’ … meaning they have word phrases they use over and over again. And while sometimes it can be pretty funny, it also can be annoying, and hard to sometimes break this pattern and doesn’t really enhance communication. Well, now that I’ve pointed out my own communication mistake, I’ll work on this, thanks for letting me share!

    And thank you once again for your insightful post ….

  • Tara,

    I had to add another shrinker that I am SO guilty of using:

    ‘Well, this is probably a crazy idea but …” OR .. ” I know you won’t want to do this but …” when I really think it’s a pretty good idea that I would like buy in for or I would not be suggesting it in the first place. Funny how our own words can set us up for failure.

  • Karen E says:

    When I think about people saying “does that make sense,” I wonder what they are truly asking, i.e. the question behind the question. Often people are longing for a felt sense of being truly heard and understood; sometimes that longing is conscious but sometimes it is not yet conscious. Indeed our culture devalues women’s thoughts, intelligence and wisdom, and when we wake up to the many ways we’ve internalized that devaluing and have compassion for ourselves and each other, we can begin to shed the barriers to playing big! Thank you, Tara.

  • Laurie Christomos says:

    Perfect timing for these reminders, Tara – thanks! And, thanks to the great responses from all your readers, I’ve discovered other conversational clean-ups I can make. The personal speech pattern I’d like to change is beginning my conversations with “So.” “So, I’d like to share my story with you.” “So, what do you think about the…” I think the “so” may be to ensure I have the other person’s attention before I begin my thought. This habit was brought up to me a few years ago and I still haven’t eliminated it completely. What it has done is made me keenly aware of when I do it.

  • Karen says:

    Caryn, yes, the uptick at the end of a sentence. I am guilty of that and very aware of it. I have analyzed it as my way of sounding unsure of myself to give the upper hand to the person to whom I’m speaking. I’ve been cleaning up my “justs” (thanks to Tara), and now I’m going to work on this pitch thing. I’m recognizing my self-sabotage speech habits, and clearing them out!

  • Chris says:

    1. This is just off the top of my head.
    2. I haven’t had a chance to think this through, but…
    3. My first thought is… ( implies maybe its not my best thought
    4. I’m not sure what you’ll think….
    5. You may not like this idea but….
    6. I will just throw this idea out…..

  • Diane Loiselle says:

    I think I say “I don’t really know” a lot, even though I DO know a lot! Also, in my first job I was told that I seemed confused because I asked too many questions. A question in the workplace should be preceded by stating a few things we do understand or know about the subject, followed by “the only piece I need filled in is…” A corollary would be “I’m not sure.” We do want to avoid this kind of verbiage in the workplace. This is a great topic to ponder. Our wording points to our self-perceptions.

  • Morgan says:

    I am guilty of the “does that make sense?”

    Thanks for the tips Tara!

    Also, this post is right on time for me. As, I’ve been doing a lot of reading on “Conscious Language” this week. Great information on the power of our words.

    xxx Morgan

  • JAN says:

    This one comes up for me when I’m getting blank stares; I’ve gone on for a long time; and the whole thing has gotten more complicated than it really needs to. I’m genuinely wondering if what I said made any sense at all. Did I say too much, did I cover the essentials, etc.. It feels like more than an ‘attitude’ and a real-time problem communicating elegantly. Sometimes my communication is elegant. Other times it just doesn’t work so well. Is it always appropriate to act like it was going well? I’m not practiced at playing big – I have a lot to learn and a long way to go. My point is that being genuine is an essential value for me. If I think I’ve confused people, are you suggesting that it’s wrong to check in with them about that?

    Thanks for your blog. It always makes me think.

  • Anne Calvert says:

    Excellent suggestions, Tara. Another shrinking word I’ve made it a goal to eliminate in my speaking and writing is “little,” in situations where it does not illuminate whatever I am expressing. A double shrinker sets its foot tentatively on the stage in this frequently used sentence, “I just have one ‘little’ question.”

  • Robin says:

    I think this comes from some training in “active listening”. I do this all the time and was taught that it is a way to let people who are communicating with you know that you are listening and understanding what they are saying. BTW I am a gen-x er. Maybe it is a generational tool? Thoughts…

  • […] 3. Three communication mistakes with big impact via Tara Sophia Mohr-Wise Living […]

  • Good morning from the lovely island of Samos in Greece. I enjoyed the tips and thank you for lending to us all the great advice! I have just begun my writing career and I am anxiously awaiting for October when I stop my season job and start exploding on paper!

  • Thanks for your work, I really appreciate it! While I agree with the intent of #3, I have a different perspective.

    In my work, it IS my job to ensure that I’m communicating in ways that are understandable to the listener. Different people hear, and process information, differently.

    I can help facilitate my clients’ success by being an astute communicator, which means, in part, being light on my feet as we dance together.

  • Tara Mohr says:

    Hi Jan –
    I think that it’s easy for women to interpret blank stares as meaning that they aren’t making sense, when often people are just listening. When we do that, we are letting our inner critic lead how we are intepreting others’ reactions to us. We can ask a more neutral question like, “What questions can I answer for you?” or “What would you like to discuss further” that gives people the same opportunity to ask their questions and address areas of confusion, but without implying we didn’t make sense. Thoughts?

  • Tara Mohr says:

    Yes, I totally agree that our job as communicators is to get across our meaning – and that entails being understood by the listener. Checking in to make sure we are understood is great.

    But I think women can check in with people in a light and friendly way without implying we haven’t made sense.

    It’s interesting that women rarely say, “Did that make sense to you?” – the “to you” would put the ball in the listeners’ court. We say “Did that make sense?” – which is us turning to another person not to ask, “Was that clear to you?” but rather “Was I clear at all?

    Questions like “What questions do you have?” Or “Is there anything you’d like us to talk about more and clarify?” reach out to the listener to make sure our communication was effective but don’t simultaneously undermine ourselves.

  • kim maurits says:

    Great post Tara, how we talk quickly becomes a habit, and often an unconscious one. One thing I work on is my response to any ’round table’ discussions. When it came to my turn for any extra input I would say ‘nothing from me, or I’m good’, which seems to me to be a weak response. So now I use a much stronger statement of ‘I have nothing further to add’.
    For me, it’s not about competing with the men around the table, it’s about showing up as a strong professional woman.

  • Wendy says:

    I use ‘just’ and “did that make sense?’ all the time but since I first saw a video interview with Tara, I have been really aware of it and focus instead on owning my views. I’ve also noticed I use ‘hmmmm’ sometimes as a way to indicate that I’m only just thinking of it now when in my heart I know that’s not true. Another I just noticed is puting … after sentences in posts. It seems to be a way to soften an opinionated sentence where a single full stop would be so definite.

  • Nina says:

    Oh wow
    Thanks Tara… I have had a tendency towards shrinking and really worked on it. Lately I have been noticing it coming back – and it actually makes me feel uncomfortable doing it – “shrinking”. I completely forgot that it was a huge issue for me and I guess it can come back up when we need to pay attention to something!
    Awareness and consciousness is the key…


  • Sandra Hart says:

    I notice so many women ending a statement, very important/courageous statements with a question-like pitch to their voice. I am surprised how many women I respect and think are brilliant, do this.
    I just found you and am looking forward to much more of your wisdom and your relevant questions.
    Thank you,

  • Sandra Hart says:

    Thank you, Kim, for bringing this up. I’m pretty sure I use too many exclamation points in my writing and though when I am speak excitedly it comes off fine, when it’s there on paper it does sounds like “please like me”.

  • […] 3. Communication mistakes with big impact via Tara Sophia Mohr […]

  • says:

    ‘Up-speak’ drives me crazy! It’s astonishing to me how many knowledgable and otherwise articulate young people compromise the impact of their message by turning every statement into a question.

  • miranda says:

    I do this also, for the same reasons as you, Robin. I’m a gen x-er too…
    I look for people I’m speaking with to do it as well, and take it as a sign that they are understanding what I’m saying.
    Interesting point Kate, I never thought of it as an interruption as I fully expect the speaker to carry on, knowing I’m listening to them and interested.
    I am an American living outside of the States, and I do this even more with non-native English speakers, to let them know they’re getting their point across – but this is a good illustration that we’re not always necessarily communicating what we think we are.

  • jackie says:

    I am a therapist and I have gotten in the habit of “leaving room for another way of seeing things” in order for clients to be able to feel free to correct me (my sense of things) and be as completely understood by me as possible. I like this approach as I offer tentative interpretations because it is useful back and forth process of “getting really clear” but I’m afraid I have adopted it outside, less consciously. My vagueness seems now to drive people nuts!! Am I shaping my own experience through this method and eroding my own authority, I wonder?

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  • […] or organizational behaviorist, she did mine conversations with other women as well as articles from Tara Sophia Mohr, who points out these words are “shrinkers” and contribute to ways that we sabotage […]

  • […] her article on Medium: “We used content from Tara Sophia Mohr who calls these words “Shrinkers”; Lydia Dishman who explains how these phrases are useless; Syliva Ann Hewlett who emphasizes that […]

  • cathy says:

    I was in 4th grade (had skipped a grade that year), felt out of place, had one friend, Lucy, who one day told me we couldn’t be friends anymore because I apologized too much. I apologized.

  • cathy says:

    Another example from life.. I was in a large circle meeting of a activists. After many turns in the discussion, the facilitator stated that we were not hearing from the women, wanted to see their hands. Women stepped up, but they all asked questions.

  • […] Según la experta en liderazgo femenino, Tara Sophia Mohr, lo único que no tienen sentido son estas frases, porque al decirlas estamos asumiendo que no fuimos claros en todo lo que dijimos previamente o que el receptor tiene dificultades de comprensión. […]

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