The 4-letter word that makes my blood boil.

Marcus Blankenship


It’s one of the worst four-letter words I know. Whenever I catch myself using it, I stop and apologize. And when I hear it, I hold up my hand and stop the person speaking.

Let me give you some examples from last week…

  • “Just put a form up to collect their e-mail…”
  • “Just make it so they can login with Facebook…”
  • “I’ll just throw it in a new database field.”
  • “We can just launch a new database server…”
  • “Lets just let them post notes, like Twitter does…”

A synonym I often hear is “simply”.

  • “Let’s simply use Redis for this…”
  • “We’ll simply spin up another AWS server…”
  • “It should be simple to reuse the Atlas library for that.”

If you use the words “just” or “simply”, you might have forgotten how hard the technical details can be. I cover how to fix this in Chapter 2 of my book, 7 Habits that Ruin your Technical Team.
Or, you might be pushing the team too hard, and glossing over the details. That’s covered in Chapter 5 of the book.

What if you’re not saying it, but you’re hearing it?

Then it’s time to stop the conversation, and politely ask for the missing details. This used to be hard for me, because it made me feel like I was asking “stupid” questions. For many years I felt that if I asked people to explain what they meant, I’d look dumb. Or unprofessional. Or I’d be wasting their time.

I finally realized that professionals aren’t content with generalities or vague requirements. They stop and ask for specifics, even at the risk of looking dumb. They have the confidence to know they aren’t dumb, and to not pretend to understand something they don’t.

You can use phrases like…

  • “Let’s pause so I can clarify what you mean. Are you suggesting that we…”
  • “Wait, before we continue, can you explain that feature more?”
  • “Going back to what you said, can you explain how you would implement that?”
  • “I might be a bit slow here, but can you explain?”

Lullaby Language

Gerald Weinberg calls “just” an example of Lullaby Language, which “lulls your mind into a false sense of security, yet remains ambiguous enough to allow for the opposite interpretation.”

He groups it with words like “should”, “soon”, “very” and “trivial”. All perfectly nice words that we see every day, but can carry a lot of hidden ambiguity an assumptions.

How I learned to stop the conversation

My boss, Milind, was great at this. When I was promoted to Team Lead I was brought into a whole new world of meetings and discussions, and I would keep my mouth shut when someone used the word “Just”, or spoke in vague terms. I didn’t want someone to think I wasn’t fit for the job, or that I was having trouble keeping up. Instead, I nodded and smiled, looking like I was tracking with them.

But Milind knew it was dangerous to accept generalities or misunderstandings. He would stop a large group conversation with the phrase, “Maybe I’m missing something here, but can you explain that in more detail?” Everyone would look at him, the speaker would pause, and then back up to cover the “just” part in more detail.

And low and behold, 90% of the time it was revealed that the person who glossed over the details had oversimplified something important. Or, was wrong about an assumption. That means 90% of the time we were able to correct the discussion in the moment, and move forward with better information.

And the 10% of the time there wasn’t a problem? The explanation clarified everyone’s understanding and we quickly moved forward. Or, it opened the door to other unspoken questions from the group.

Watching Milind do this made me feel confident enough to try it. Now I do it often, as really understanding what someone is telling me is the most important thing. It allows me to correct misunderstandings and assumptions in the moment, instead of wasting time working in the wrong direction.

Now it’s your turn

How often do you hear the word “just” or “simply”, and nod in agreement?

How could you pause the conversation and change the conversation to move in a different direction?

How often do you use these words, especially when setting expectations or defining requirements?

Marcus Blankenship

Written by

Hacker, Problem Solver, Calvinist, Geek. Author of Habits That Harm Your Technical Team.

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