Powerless Words

I recently read an article about choosing not to fail. This article repeatedly discussed one of the most powerless words in English, "try." In fact, "try" is so powerless that in many countries and languages there is no equivalent of the word; it can not be translated.

Powerless words are words that lack commitment, conviction, the intent of focused action, purposefulness, and resolve. 

What's so important about this? Your thoughts produce actions. Therefore, your thoughts produce the results in your life. Dr. Wayne Dyer once wrote, "You become what you think about all day long and those days eventually become your lifetime." If you think using powerless words that lack commitment, then what will your legacy be?

Below is a list of powerless words that I've collected over time. Some of these I learned while taking leadership training, others I collected from various mentors and friends.


"But" negates everything that was said before it. This is an objection. Using it saps all the energy from the conversation. How many times have you heard, "Yes, but..." and felt deflated due to the realization that your idea or comment is about to get a rebuttal?

A much more powerful and energetic way to handle this is to add to what someone says with the word "And."  "Yes, and..." Instead of saying, "yes, but what about..." in order to gain clarification, ask open ended questions that direct the conversation to new understanding.


The king of wimpy; no commitment. What is the intention behind the word? How much effort will you expend to accomplish the goal? Are you willing to do everything in your power to make it happen? Are you committed to using your creativity to find a way to navigate around any obstacle to achieve the goal? Or are you going to give up at the first bit of resistance? If you intend to give minimal effort to complete the objective, then say that instead. Your candor and honesty will go farther to build trust than "trying" will.

Oh, and "attempt" is "try" in a tuxedo. It carries the same lack of commitment as "try."

Using "will" delivers power and a commitment to action. There is a resolve and an intention to accomplish the goal. There's also a level of accountability and trust that is forged when using the word "will"-- that you will do everything you can to fulfill your commitment. Remember Yoda's infamous line from the Star Wars movie, "Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try."

"Try" is also an imprecise, unnecessary word. How do you "try" to call someone? What does that mean? Were you too weak to pick up the receiver? Unable to push the buttons?  "I tried to call you but I got no answer." What? "I called you and I got no answer." Now, that is what really happened.


People I speak with are able to articulate what they don't want. And, sometimes, people focus on what they don't want in order to narrow down their scope to get to what they do want. The key here, in the end, is to focus on what you DO want. Coaching really helps people get clear on what they want, what is meaningful to them, and execute on a plan of action.

I personally struggled with this for a while. I was able to articulate what I didn't want in my life. It took time and effort, and the patience of a great mentor and friend along with the support of my wife, to change my focus to what I did want in my life. And then, what I wanted began to appear in my life because that was what I focused on!


There are two aspects to the use of "should." The first is looking back over your shoulder and saying, "I should have done this." This is self-defeating thinking that serves no one. It's an unnecessary self-inflicted reprimand.

A more productive thought is, "Based on what I learned from that situation, next time I'll do this."  The first statement was focusing on what went wrong, on the past, on what you do not want. The second is about learning, moving forward and focusing on what you do want to happen next time. It becomes an opportunity to learn, just like failure is an opportunity to learn.

The second aspect of "should" is more forward looking, as in, "I should do this." What level of commitment does this indicate to you? Personally, I want to know what you will do, not what you believe you should do. So, similar to "try," this lacks a commitment to take action.

More powerful alternatives are "I will" and "I get to."

Need To / Have To

When I hear "need to," I am still wary of the level of commitment from the other person. If you "need to" do something, that means you recognize the need to accomplish something, and still may choose to not do it. The commitment and enthusiasm are still lacking.

Another aspect of this is the energy of the statements "need to" and "have to." Both of these carry negative and resistant energy with them. Using "get to" instead replaces the negative energy with a positive energy full of possibilities. For example, changing from, "I need/have to serve on a jury" to "I get to serve on a jury" alters the energy and the thinking. Using "need to" makes this something unpleasant that you are forced to do begrudgingly. When you change to using "get to," your mind is free to explore the possibilities of meeting new people, having new experiences, and helping your community by serving on a jury.

Once again, the alternatives here are "I will" and "I get to."


There are several words that may be powerless depending upon the context they are used in. For example, using these words in a brainstorming session or during a collaborative meeting would be appropriate. The following are these words used in powerless ways.


"Could" is a word filled with resistance. It lacks the commitment of saying "I will do it." It still leaves options open without a commitment to complete something. It's conditional, "I could do this if I wanted to."

Replacing could with "will" alleviates any doubt about the effort and intent that will be invested towards accomplishing something.

Maybe / Perhaps / Might / Possibly / Potentially

When someone responds with any of these words, be wary of his/her commitment. When you use them, question your own commitment and your true motive.

"Maybe" is often used as a softer way to say "No." For example: occasionally, when my son would ask me to play catch, I really didn't feel up to it. Instead of saying "No," I would say "Maybe." I knew I had no intention of playing catch with him. Yet to him a "maybe" left him with a great hope that soon Dad would play catch with him. "Maybe" was simply my way of avoiding committing. I actually even convinced myself that it was nicer than saying "No." In reality, an honest "No," is much kinder.

These words are a way of avoiding commitment, and they give you an out. These powerless words do nothing to build credibility or trust in your relationships with others.

Again, replacing this with "I will" communicates the level of commitment from you. Accountability is established and trust is built. The intention is set.


Saying "I think" indicates that there's uncertainty in what's being said. How many times have you told someone what you think, only to find out something different is actually true? When you say "I think," I question whether you know, and, if not, I'll ask you to find out for sure!

An alternative to "I think" is "I believe," or "In my opinion." These statements are more accurate.

One disclaimer about this word. "Thinking" is a creative process that yields results. It's something we all do. I'm not saying, "Stop thinking." To the contrary, keep thinking! And be more precise with your words by differentiating knowledge, "I know," from beliefs by using "I believe" or "In my opinion.”

When talking with people, be on the lookout for these words. When I hear them, I definitely question the intent of people and their commitment. I ask for that commitment or ask when they will be able to commit. You'll often hear me probing people during conversations about their use of powerless words, and, more importantly, their commitment to taking action.

Eradicating Powerless Words

To eradicate these words from my vocabulary, I took multiple steps. First, I worked on noticing when I used these words. I asked friends and family to help me realize when I used these words. As I noticed my use of them, I would work on reframing my statements to be more powerful and more precise. When I heard other people use these words on the radio, on television, and during presentations, I would mentally re-frame their statements to practice. Eventually, I realized the impact that other people's powerless words had on my life since we're all interconnected, so I began questioning people's intent when these words came up in conversations.

Here are some questions to ponder about powerless words:

  • Where do powerless words shown up in my life?

  • What are the outcomes I see when other people use powerless words?


  • If you currently use these words, what will you commit to do to make this change in your life?

Gary Bamberger