Lindsay McMahon
"The English Adventurer"

The English words and phrases used at work could hold you back or prevent your success.

You may be using these words without realizing the effects.

In today’s episode, Lindsay interviews leadership trainer Julie Holunga.

She’ll share her expert insight on words to avoid in order to build a successful career.

Who is Julie Holunga?

As a leadership speaker and trainer, Julie helps others develop communication skills not taught in schools.

She grew up in Paris, New Delhi, Hong Kong, and New York City.

She also worked at Harvard University, helping alumni advance their careers.

Julie hosted a Ted talk in November of 2020 entitled “Don’t Let Your Words Sabotage Your Career.”

Her path to communication coaching

Juli shares that she has a lot of fun talking about language.

She grew up overseas where she started elementary school in Paris.

As early as 6 years old, she recognized a disconnect between languages.

At a young age, she learned to adapt and discovered how to communicate in different ways.

She vividly remembers leaving Hong Kong to go back to New York when she was in seventh grade.

She met with a counselor weekly to reintegrate to the new culture and language.

She was told to avoid talking about moving to different countries.

The assumption was that those she told would assume she couldn’t speak English well.

That stuck with her and she realized how much sharing her story would help others.

She helped those who have gone through the same situation.

Additionally, she is able to help those struggling to make connections in their personal life or work.

3 Language choices to avoid

Julie started a career at Harvard and felt intimidated.

A mentor shared that she shouldn’t show her inexperience.

She was advised to not let that get in the way of assisting the alumni at Harvard.

Taking this advice, she positioned herself as an expert and showed confidence.

This way, the support she provides is not devalued.

In Julie’s Ted Talk, she discusses the tendency of many women to question themselves at work.

Julie expands about the mindset and phrases to avoid that can undermine a career.

#1: Don’t automatically apologize

Your first reaction may be to apologize, even if something was not your fault.

Julie shares an example of a client who was responsible for pulling materials for a board meeting.

Quarter after quarter, their CFO wouldn’t send the materials needed for the meeting.

She would always be scrambling trying to find data for the report.

When the board meeting arrived, both of them would look bad because they wouldn’t have anything to share.

Julie’s client had tried everything to make sure they could produce data every quarter.

She worked with the CFO’s assistant, gave a false early deadline, kept calling, and asked many times in person.

The CFO would inevitably be mad because his part was not prepared.

She would then apologize and it became an opportunity for the CFO to make her look bad and put the blame on her.

When she consulted Julie, she was taught how to address this so there was a shift in responsibility.

Power of words

The next time it happened, her client did not apologize.

Instead, she said, “I hear your frustration. What can I do to help you?”

The CFO’s original frustrated demeanor faded and the conversation shifted.

Instead, he apologized and acknowledged his mistakes.

Her client’s word choice set the tone of the interaction and the power relationship between them.

Apologize only for your mistakes and not other people’s mistakes.

#2: Avoid conditional language

When you are using conditional language, subconsciously you are planting a seed of doubt with your audience.


  • I think
  • I believe

If you are in a position of influence or negotiation, seeking agreement, you need to be confident.

Instead of using conditional language, use declarative language.


  • I suggest
  • I recommend

If you are in a brainstorming session, it’s okay to use language such as “I think” or “I believe”.

However, if you are in sales and you want to close a deal, it’s best to use strong and declarative language.

This will highlight your confidence in the idea or product you are trying to sell.

#3: Don’t undermine yourself

Words like “just” can undermine your message.

If you say, “I was just lucky,” this can undermine the value of how amazing an accomplishment is.

You don’t have to admit inexperience or lack of expertise.

This doesn’t mean that you should pretend to be an expert.

Instead push yourself to show what you can bring to the table.

If you are in a position of expertise, own it and make sure to keep yourself in that light.


Using the right words can be very powerful in your career.

Apologizing for others’ faults, highlighting inexperience and using today’s phrases can undermine you.

Setting the tone will make your interactions stronger and will give you the confidence to build trust and bring you to new heights in your career.

You can find more resources from Julie Holunga at

Which of Julie’s tips will help you in your career?

Share your opinion in the comments below.

Julie’s bio

Julie Holunga develops professionals to amplify their influence and impact. The most sustainable and motivating program she offers is a multi-month program, including professional development programs to build skills and individual coaching to problem solve. Following the skill-building phase, she works with teams to instill the Trusted Voice Paradigm to develop collaborative patterns that deliver value. Through these programs, leaders get out of their own way, develop trusting relationships with key stakeholders, and have a positive impact on the organization’s bottom line. Her expertise lies within professional services: law, accounting, and investment firms, with a specialization in the careers of female leaders. Check out her TEDx talk on the power of leadership language!

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