Hedging: The Speaking Habit Harming Your Credibility

All speakers want to seem credible. They want their audiences to see them as knowledgeable and trustworthy. But what if you have speaking habits that are hurting your credibility?

One fairly common language habit could be blocking your path to effective public speaking while undermining the power of your presentations. It’s called hedging. It’s a form of weak language that you might not even realize you are using.

So let’s take a look at what it is, how it harms your credibility, and how to stop it.

What Is It?

Hedging is a language tactic used to soften your communication and make statements sound less forceful. That doesn’t necessarily sound bad, but in reality, hedging detracts from your credibility. In their article, “Why Hedging Language Undermines Your Writing,” Grammarly.com lists 5 common hedging phrases:

I think…
I feel like…
It would be great if…
Should be able to…

Phrases like these weaken and clutter up your language. When you remove them, your message becomes more concise and clear. One thing to note, though. Hedging is different from qualifying. Qualifying is using phrases like “in most cases,” “often,” or “probably” to show a degree of probability. These types of phrases help us not to overpromise and to communicate realistic expectations and outcomes. So qualifying is okay. Hedging is not.

Why It Harms Your Credibility

So if hedging aims to soften your communication, what is wrong with that? Well, it’s a form of indirect communication. Well-known linguist Deborah Tannen says that we tend to distrust indirect communication. Tannen notes that “many Americans find it self-evident that directness is logical and aligned with power whereas indirectness is akin to dishonesty and reflects subservience.” Yikes!  Hedging doesn’t just make us sound uncertain, it sounds like we are trying to sugarcoat, distort, or hide something at times.

In fact, researchers Kris Liu ad Jean E. Fox Tree found that hedging a bit of information (“the shirt cost, like, $15) can lead the listeners to recognize it as inaccurate, approximate, or unimportant. Their study showed that when hedges were added, the participants didn’t bother to repeat the information with the hedge when relaying details to others. The ironic thing is that hedging actually marks that information as something different, so the listener might remember it longer. But not necessarily for the right reasons.

If we go back to what Tanner tells us, that we see indirect communication as dishonest, it could be that our brains pick up on hedged material because we are wrapping that information in caution tape. We recognize that the speaker is not being direct with us, so we get suspicious.

How to Stop Hedging

As with many bad habits, the first thing we have to do is just to become aware that we are doing it. Take the 5 phrases we listed above. List them in your phone or write them down somewhere you can see them. Then begin a language inventory. Start to notice when you are hedging and take these language leeches out. Don’t let their sneaky indirectness suck the clarity out of your speech.

Once you stop hedging, you’ll find that you not only sound more confident, you’ll feel more confident as well. That’s because you are learning to communicate with greater directness and authority. That doesn’t mean that you need to be cold, combative, or controlling. It just means that you find strong ways to say exactly what you need to say.

When you can do this, your audience will naturally trust your authority more readily. So basically I feel like it would be great if you could stop using language with hedges. Don’t worry, I think you should be able to do this. Stop hedging. You can do this.

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