Forbidden Words

Language matters in the disciplines of contracting and project management. Contracts clearly define partnerships in a vernacular concrete-enough to uphold in court. Project specifications illustrate a definitive and cogent set of criteria that read like an instruction manual. This should be enough to take a contractor from start to finish flawlessly, correct? Oh no. We have missed a critical factor: the human factor.

Language in the field and the office truly drives projects. Each week we hold meetings with our PM’s, superintendents, and foreman, and we have banned the following list of phrases from their reporting vocabulary. Solving communication deficiencies has helped us to deliver a better product for our customers and become more profitable while doing so. Here we attempt to identify some common communication issues and provide alternative ways to deliver project updates.



What defines They? They have a name, and They tend to cost us a lot of money over the years.

Technician: “They told us to install it this way. They were wrong. Now we have to redo it”

PM: “Who was it?”

Technician: “That programmer what’s-his-face. He got fired.”

PM: “Was it documented, or just verbal?

Technician: “Verbal.”

PM: “Then WE eat the cost.”

Suggested Replacement: “Add person and company name here and send an email to confirm the direction they provided”. Be clear. Define and document verbal conversations.

For example, “Dear Customer: We have installed the temperature sensor in the hallway as shown on the plans, but the General Contractor (John Smith) is asking us to relocate it to the main office. Please confirm this direction and approve our added cost of $XXX prior to performing the work.” Field direction is very costly, and the saying that we use is “If it isn’t documented, then it never happened.”


“I Hope”

Hope is not a strategy! I hope to win a million dollars but there is no way to plan for luck. Plan the work and work the plan. Don’t hope for success without control of a way to get there.

Suggested Replacement: “I plan”, “I will do”

For example, if a Branch Manager asks a Project Manager whether or not the project is going to complete on time, an inappropriate answer would be, “I hope so! We really need some other contractors out of our way before we can complete”. This implies that the PM does not have total control of the project or its resources and is instead relying on the good faith efforts of others to accommodate his/her management of the project. The better response would be something like, “With the other contractors in our way, we will not complete on time. So, I plan to speak to our customer in the morning and will escalate this to the GC so that we can continue our installation.” Do you see the difference in how an approach to changing one’s language can actually change their mentality? In this case, the PM switched from reactive to proactive and is now a task-owner versus a victim of circumstance.


“I Think”

This loosely translates to “my brain works”, but it doesn’t really mean anything. If you only think so, then you don’t know so. And don’t believe either. Beliefs are for moral and ethical arguments, not scope control. Know your scope, know your path, and if you don’t know then say so. Own your position, no matter where it is on the org chart.

Suggested Replacement: “I know”, “I will find out”


Foreman: “Larry, today you are tasked with pulling 300 feet of CAT6 wiring, mounting three wireless coordinators, and terminating the cabling at the devices and the control panel before 3:30 pm. Is this a realistic goal?”

Typical answer from Larry: “I think so, I mean it doesn’t seem that bad.”

The ideal answer from Larry: “I know I can do all of that in a day, but I need to look at the space to see if anything will keep me from completing the goal. I will let you know in an hour so that you can inform our customer.”

Although it might take Larry an hour to provide a response, the truth in one hour is much better than a blown expectation in eight hours. Knowing the truth early will save money and frustration in the long run.


“I’m Trying”

Don’t Try, Do! Trying is a passive-aggressive jab at yourself. On one hand you admit that you are attempting to perform a task, but on the other hand, you admittedly have little confidence in your own performance. If you are doing, then you are achieving progress. If you are trying, you are not progressing and instead are wasting everyone’s time and money.

Suggested Replacement: “Doing” phrases and actions, a mindset focused around proactivity and forward-thinking

This can be a difficult concept to illustrate because it can be a challenge to distinguish the difference between trying and doing. After all, isn’t doing also trying? This is more about a strategic shift in mentality in order to redirect mindsets from that of victimhood to ownership. It will in-turn change the language. Think about it like this. John’s assigned tasks for the day are to install 150 feet of cabling, mount one component panel, and terminate a front-end controller. All is going well until he hits a snag or two. The project superintendent checks in with John during lunch and asks for an update.

John’s typical response: “Well, I’m trying to get all of this done but someone stole my wire strippers and I ran out of anchor-bolts to mount the panel. But, I’m trying and will get as far as I can. If I can get some wire strippers and more anchor belts that will help.” This sounds somewhat optimistic, right? He’s trying, right? What if the conversation happened like this instead. Before the superintendent calls John, John calls the superintendent before lunch and says, “Someone stole my wire strippers but I borrowed some from the electrician. I also borrowed some anchor-bolts from them and will replace them at the end of the day once I get the cabling and panel work ready for check-out. Since I underestimated the materials, I’ll swing by the store on lunch break. But, everything will be ready by end of the day as expected.


“Probably / Maybe”

Probably what? It either probably is, or it probably isn’t, you are probably doing this or you probably aren’t. Which is it? Probability is something for the Science Channel. We cannot function on probabilities when up against a deadline. Using ambiguous words like probably and maybe give you an out to cast blame elsewhere instead of having personal ownership. Cease the ambiguous language and be more confident with your words.

Suggested Replacement: Simply remove it from your vocabulary and think about the ownership of your actions.

By removing ambiguous language from one’s vocabulary, one is forced to polarize both thought-process and action into black or white details. It is either this, or it is that, and nothing in between. When this occurs, decisions are either correct or incorrect. Correct decisions are celebrated, and incorrect decisions become lessons learned. As we tell our teams, “A wrong decision is better than no decision at all.” Once the gray-zone is eliminated from language, it begins to translate into personal ownership and accountability. Ultimately, ownership and accountability become builders of confidence.



This is the most dangerous word of all and has cost us the most money and sleep by far.

PM: “How are we doing?”

Technician: “Good, we got done today.”

PM: “Great!”

Technician: “Except for this and that.”

PM: “Wait, last week you told me we would be done today.”

Technician: “Yeah, done with this first thing.”

PM: “This first thing is only 10% of the task. When will we be done done?

Technician: Done done? Next week…Except for this other thing.”

PM: “When will we be DONE DONE with this other thing?!”

Technician: “Well, this other thing has to get done first.”

PM: “When will that be done done and we will be DONE DONE DONE?!”

Technician: “It’ll be a while.”

PM: “We already told the customer it would be done today and they’ve scheduled the

commissioning agent for tomorrow!”

Technician: “Ha, well that ain’t gonna happen.”

This is when “Done” evolves into “DDFD”, and the “F” doesn’t stand for “Finally”.

Synonyms: “100%”, “Complete”, “Finished”

Suggested Replacement:  “Ready for programming/testing”, “Pending confirmation from our customer”, “Rolling into warranty”

The most effective tool to manage this issue is project management tracking software such as Microsoft Project for basic task scheduling, Fieldlens for real-time reporting, or a more robust product such as Sage Project Management Software to name a few; however, these tools are only as effective as the accuracy of reporting from the field.

As my professional coach declares frequently, “Words are important!”. They are not only a representation of an individual’s personality and level of emotional intelligence, but they also function as psychological triggers which when used effectively can alter one’s entire approach to daily performance. To summarize, through language modification we can be clear and define specifics, we can plan and control our work, we can separate truth from assumption, we can become proactive and forward-thinking, we can remove ambiguity and improve confidence, and we can report reality accurately. Either in your own daily routine or in the management of others, do these things and you will begin to notice improvements within your professional environment.