I remember it like it was yesterday. Nervous and awkward, waiting by the locked office door, I shyly stared at my feet as my new boss, the company owner, arrived to start the day.
“Oh, you’re here bright and, um…” (glancing at his watch), “30 minutes early,” he said. “Let’s go in, have some coffee, and discuss what we’ll be doing today.”
I was 18 and excitedly walked into the office, feeling like a real adult—it was my first 9-to-5, Monday-to-Friday job!
As we went over what tasks and responsibilities would be delegated to me, Steve, my boss, told me I would be answering phones with the reasonable expectation I would sound and behave professionally.
“Sure, yes, I can do that!”
We quickly did a mock practice: “Hello, XYZ Company, how can I help you?”
Steve was playing the role of caller and started asking questions. “Is so-and-so there? How do I make an appointment? Who am I talking to? Can you help me with a return?”
I had to pretend answer those questions. “I’m sorry, sir, I can’t help with that. I’m just the receptionist. I can…”
Right then and there, Steve said, “No, no, no. Let’s get this straight: you are not and never will be ‘just’ anything. By using the word ‘just,’ you diminished yourself, your abilities, and your value in this company. If you learn only one thing working here, let it be that ‘just’ is a four-letter word. It’s limiting, and you are limitless.”
Over the next four years, I learned every aspect of running the business, but the thing I have remembered most and taken with me is I am more than “just.” I am more than the title I wear or the work I do. The wisdom Steve passed onto me about confidence and self-worth (way before self-worth became a much-needed and discussed subject under the umbrella of mental wellness) has helped me become a better person and grow as an individual, a mother, a wife, a business owner, and more.
The psychology of ‘just’
By definition, “just” means “only or merely.” If, when asked what you do for a living, you reply, “I am just a kennel attendant,” it is the equivalent of saying, “I am merely a kennel attendant.” This is where the words “just” and “but” are similar: both negate, diminish, or cancel everything said previously.
“I like how you managed that client’s dog, but…” With this sentence, the listener knows what was said before the word “but” does not matter. The compliment has, affectively, been diminished; what you say after “but” is what you really think or want to emphasize.
Likewise, “just” works as a diminishing word. When we say things like, “I’m just a veterinary assistant,” we subconsciously lessen and downplay our abilities, our worth, and our dignity. This must be stopped!
I must agree with John Maxwell: “Teamwork makes the dream work.”
No matter our position or job title in a practice, we are a team. We come together with a common goal; a willingness to go above and beyond, to help our patients and to provide the best medical care possible. The environment is busy, fast-paced, and often hectic. How do we manage it, day in and day out? We become innovative thinkers, masters of efficiency, and experts in resiliency!
Say you approach your practice manager with an epic idea to streamline the patient intake process, reduce congestion, and ease wait times. After sharing this innovation, however, you close by saying, “That’s just my opinion.” Without realizing it, you have subconsciously weakened what you have said. Your idea, while a good one, was delivered with uncertainty, suggesting you may doubt yourself.
Indeed, the word “just” can undercut team building and leadership. Consider:
1) When delegating tasks, make them clear and concise. Using the word “just” doesn’t soften a task; instead, it can create feelings of being unappreciated for the demanding work and effort put into completing said task.
2) Too many “justs” can build up resentment and have a negative impact on your team. Indeed, what might seem like an easy task for you may have more challenges than the word implies.
3) “Just” closes the door for further deliberation. Teams discuss, discussions bring out problems, problems bring out critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and these skills bring out solutions. We need solvers and critical thinkers in a practice!
4) “Just” minimizes. Celebrate your teams’ efforts and accomplishments. Stay away from statements minimizing by not prefacing “wins” with that word!
Now that we have a clear understanding of the psychology and power behind certain words, here are some options on how to tackle “just” in practice.
- Omit and drop the word altogether: Be direct and specific. It is okay to say what you came to say. Tactfulness and professionalism speak volumes.
- Use alternative wording and variety: For example, instead of saying, “I just wanted to follow up and see how Fluffy is doing after her dental cleaning yesterday,” say, “I know Fluffy had her dental cleaning yesterday. How is she doing today?”
- Keep specific communication goals in mind: Who are you speaking to and what do you need from them or want from them? Are you communicating in person or via email? Is this a formal or informal message, and how well do you know this person? What do you want to achieve from this communication?
Forward with strength
Often, we feel “just” conveys politeness; serving almost as an unspoken subconscious apology for communicating a need
or delegating a task. It’s our safety word, which we believe says, “Hey, I’m not being aggressive or rude,” or, “Hey, this task will be easy (at least I think and hope so).” What we may not realize, however, is the receiver hears the opposite of what we are trying to convey.
The key to maintaining good communication for all parties involved starts with respect, perspective, and fairness. When we begin from a place based on this foundation, we can begin to understand the impact words have on those around us. We become more mindful and aware of the power they have, as well as their ability to build up or tear down. Choose to be a builder!
When it comes to you telling the world who you are, take “just” out of your vocabulary. Like Steve taught me all those years ago: “You are not and never will be ‘just’ anything.” You are more—you are more than your job title, more than what you do for a living, more than where you live, and more than who you love or who loves you. You are invaluable.
It has been 30 years since I walked through the office door on that bright and early morning. Steve, a wise old man, is well into retirement, enjoying sunny Southern California days, taking long walks with his loving wife, Jane, and, without a doubt, living a great life. I know he would be thrilled to know his mentorship and the pearls of wisdom he imparted on that doe-eyed girl all those years ago are still being shared with others.
Linda Miller, BS, CCFP, has more than 20 years of business experience. In addition to a Bachelor of Science degree in business management, she also as degrees in psychology, interdisciplinary studies, and business administration. As co-owner of Dog Days Consulting, Miller manages clients’ social media accounts. She is a certified compassion fatigue professional and a certified master life coach. Her passion lies in teaching skills and providing staff with the necessary tools to help them sustain a long enjoyable career in the veterinary industry.