Find out what words you use daily that keep you from success.

Image of Todd Herman

Recently, I had a gift – one with an expiration date – to give a friend. I asked her how I could get it to her so she could enjoy it. She replied, "I'll try to swing by your office to pick it up before I leave on a trip." A couple days later, my friend had not come by, so I asked when she would be by. The same "I'll try to ... " statement occurred again, so I offered to take it to her. This time, her phrasing was different – "No need for you to bother doing that. I will stop by your office on Monday to pick it up." Finally – commitment! And on Monday, she did indeed keep her commitment and pick up her gift!

What is a Commitment?

A little background on my friend – she is a coach, so she helps clients achieve better results. And a key technique in every coach's toolbox? Getting a specific commitment from a client, and holding the client accountable for doing what was promised and when promised. In the interesting and very practical book, Who Will Do What By When?, these concepts come together in the following definition:

A promise is a commitment to future action in a specified time frame.

Let's parse my friend's two statements, using the key words in this definition:

  • Future Action – Both statements described a future action, "swing by your office to pick it up" and "stop by your office to pick it up."
  • Specified Time Frame – Technically, "before I leave on my trip" is a specified time frame – I knew she was leaving on Wednesday–yet it is very vague because this could refer to any of six business days between when I told her about this and when she left. The "on Monday" narrows it down to a specific business day.
  • Commitment – "I will" is a commitment. What about "I'll try"?

Many people would say "I'll try" is a commitment, albeit a conditional one, since it leaves an incredible amount of wiggle room on whether the action will be done. What does one wise master have to say about "try"?

"Do or do not ... there is no try." – Jedi Master Yoda (from George Lucas' Star Wars)

"I'll try" all too frequently results in non-performance because it typically implies non-attempt. Unless an action is attempted, the action will remain undone.

Now, I know my friend would have genuinely attempted to pick up her gift. Still, as this vignette shows, "try" can slip into the vocabulary of even a person with very high personal accountability.

Read more on sticking to commitments

Why "Try" is Not a Commitment


Why is "try" bad? "Try" is a "weasel word" * – it allows equivocation. It gives the appearance of commitment while avoiding actual commitment. "Try" frequently means, "I really don't want to do what you've asked of me, and I don't want to say 'no' to your face, so I'll use 'I'll try" to let myself off the hook."

When I discussed this topic with one of my associates, we came up with many other "weasel words."

  • Try
  • Could
  • Should
  • Ought
  • May
  • Might

If someone (Person A) uses words like these to avoid full commitment, what are the reactions for the person hearing them (Person B)?

  • False Sense of Security – his case begins just like the previous one. What's different – Person A never actually intends to attempt the action.
    • If the stakes are low, the main harm is to the relationship.
    • If the stakes are high, not only is the relationship damaged, other people will also be affected.
  • Little Sense of Security and Silence – While Person B senses Person A is insincere, Person B does not say anything. When nothing happens, Person B is frustrated with both Person A ... and herself.
  • No Sense of Security and Speaking Up – Person B senses insincerity, and questions Person A until a bona fide commitment is obtained ... or Person A owns up to his true intent.

The following cases differ from the previous ones, because Person B is sincere and makes a good faith effort:

  • Genuine Sense of Security – Person B truly believes Person A will genuinely attempt the action, and accepts Person A's "try" as "attempted and not able" when the action is undone. In this case, Person A actually attempts the action, and cannot accomplish it.
  • No Sense of Security and Speaking Up – Person B recognizes ambiguity, and points this out to Person A, who then makes a bona fide commitment.

Whether intentional or not, use of "weasel words" avoid commitment. Unless the person hearing them recognizes the inherent ambiguity and questions this, the person will be left with uncertainty – which is not a good feeling.

How to Banish "Try" in Yourself and Others

Now that you know some common "weasel words," what can you do differently? First, banish them from your vocabulary and make a genuine promise. Second, should you hear them, politely ask the person for a clear commitment. Taking both these actions will make life better for you, and those around you.



* Interesting tidbit–here's the origin of "weasel word" according to Merriam-Webster (source:;):

Main Entry: weasel word

Function: noun

Etymology: from the weasel's reputed habit of sucking the contents out of an egg while leaving the shell superficially intact

Date: 1900

a word used in order to evade or retreat from a direct or forthright statement or position