I’m a pretty casual speaker, and my lingo on the daily is typically meme-y and crass. So when it comes to the workplace, my words come off pretty direct, causing problems. In the past, I’ve been so direct that managers have needed to tell me in one-on-ones to speak more softly, and I tell them, “Well, I don’t know how else to say it.”
Nonetheless, I’ve learned over the years if you remain too casual, your decisions and words lose impact. Even if it all feels like bullshit at the end of the day, being professional is a key element to growing your career. You want to be taken seriously — you’re not going to get stakeholder alignment if you’re seen as a clown.
So I’ve learned and paid attention during the years to what word choices to use to remain professional in the workplace. You have to learn to communicate in a communication game.
Here are some professional ways to say common casual phrases.
This sucks. This doesn’t look clean enough
As a designer there are a lot of moments where you’re looking at someone’s work, whether it be another designer or an engineer’s front end work, and you’ll think to yourself holy shit this is bad. It’s lacking quality, really junior looking, and is not clean. How do you tell them it’s bad and not up to par?
This doesn’t look clean enough → I think this could use more polish
Most of the time, saying “This could use more polish” is sufficient to the other person that there needs more work. If they’re unsure why or in what way, they will come ask you, and then you can guide them nicely.
What’s the deadline on this? When do you need this by?
Out of college I always asked my clients, what’s the deadline? It sounds weird and unprofessional because in the workplace there is no “deadline,” everyone understands things happen and it gets done when it gets done. But there is always a level of urgency, so instead, ask in the form of timelines. What is the timeline? What’s the timeline we’re working with? What are we thinking about in terms of timeline?
What’s the deadline on this? → How flexible is the timeline?
Is this your own opinion?
You always have that one person who is super opinionated, whose voice shouts louder than the rest of the room. He/she talks the most, and it makes it feel like whatever he/she says is representative of the rest of the room. Instead of being an asshole and asking straight up, “Is this your own opinion?” Try this:
Is this your own opinion? → Does the team feel strongly about this?
It forces the rest of the room to open up to talk about their own thoughts, without putting a weird spotlight on the other person.
That’s fucking bullshit
We feel this all the time. It’s hard to keep it in but I found some good ways to show that in a productive and communicative way. Imagine you had a project ready to ship but an executive has stopped the project altogether with no explanation. You can talk about it in the form of, “It’s frustrating to hear that we couldn’t ship this. I really wish they would have reconsidered,” or perhaps, “What has to happen for us to ship?”
That’s fucking bullshit → It’s frustrating to hear…
That’s fucking bullshit → What has to happen for us to…[ship?]
That’s fucking bullshit → What led to this…[decision]?
That’s fucking bullshit → Is there any additional context around this?
The important part is to express your frustration in a way that is constructive and can move the conversation forward. That way it’s not just two people feeling mad and bad with no resolve or end.
I did this
Introduce yourself as “we.” You are now worth at least three people at all times. It makes your words sound like you have a whole team backing you (you do, don’t you?). More importantly, “we” implies that you and this team of yours (maybe it’s just you, but whatever still say “we”), are aligned on the thinking. It’s easy to fight one person, but to fight a whole team is a bit more daunting. Take accountability for when you do something wrong, but if it’s a team loss like lack of communication led to poor outcomes, it’ll soften the blow to say “we could have communicated better as a team.” Even if the conversation was just between two people, soften the blow and don’t blame the other person directly. Just say “we could have done better as a team,” they’ll know what it means.
I think…→ We think…
I succeeded…→ We succeeded…
I failed… → We failed…
How bad was it? That went really poorly
Replace “bad” with “well received.” You can also say things like “The presentation yesterday was not well received.”
That went really poorly → It was not well received
How bad was it → Was it well received?
“You” when it’s positive, “We” when it’s negative
When giving feedback, especially in a group setting, call out the person who contributed to good work. At the same time, even if it was a single point of failure, be sure to soften the blow and say “we.” For example, “Christie did a great job in designing for the different solutions, but we as a team could have done better at making sure it was polished before build.” Seems like a small detail but anyone who has been called out in a team meeting knows that it can be a pretty shitty feeling.
Be inquisitive, even if you already 100% know the answer. This prevents you from sounding like an asshole, and gives other people an opportunity to come to the same conclusion without feeling like it was forced upon them. For example, instead of “The results were awful from the last test you launched, we lost a million users,” try something like, “If I understand the results correctly, would this imply we lost a million users?” or “How bad is it here that we lost some users? What might’ve caused this?”
How might we
Similar to being inquisitive, it helps to move the conversation forward by asking questions starting with “How might we.” As a preventative measure, like “How might we prevent this in the future?” or thinking bigger like “How might we design for a user who would want this feature?”
Keep it positive
This can’t be emphasized enough. Start and end with a positive statement so you don’t give the wrong vibes; people don’t remember what you say they remember how you made them feel. Keep things in a learning mentality, and say things like, “It’s ok, don’t worry about it it’s a good learning experience for next time.”