Andy Hansen

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Avoid Saying "Just"

“Just” is one of those words that I can find myself using when I’m trying to help solve a problem. If someone is asking you for help, and your response is along the lines of “Can you just X”, there is an unnecessary implication that the solution was obvious. If this language is used as part of a mentoring relationship, it’s putting pressure on the mentee to just “be better” by implying that they had simply not found the obvious solution.

Unfortunately for me, it was firmly baked into the way I communicated. I couldn’t just stop using it. It takes a lot of time and a lot of care. If you are at a workplace that uses Slack or something similar, you can find yourself writing a lot of rapid fire messages to the people that you work with. It’s natural that these bad habits sneak their way back in from time to time. At this point, I think I’ve edited dozens of messages to remove “just”, moments after hitting send. It’s a great checkpoint to identify when I’ve overestimated how simple a problem is, or how much knowledge is required for the “just” to be valid. In those situations I’m often not thinking about the full context of the problem they might be facing, to the point that my message may be of no use to them at all.

If you are not convinced at this point, it will probably help to use some examples.

“You just need to put a message onto the queue in SQS and it should trigger the event.” In this message, I’ve assumed that the person understands what SQS is, which queue in SQS they need to use, and what the message format is. If I’ve started writing a message like this, I will usually end up completely rewriting it to specify the queue and to include an example of the format.

“I think you just need to rewrite that last paragraph so that the most important content is at the top”. In this message, I’ve assumed that the person understands what I consider to be the most important content, and that they are able to do this without any help.

The above examples are skewed to look particularly unhelpful. Generally if I’ve written a sentence like that, it will include an offer to help more directly if needed. It’s getting the person the support they need, but still includes the slight underlying implication that the problem is fairly simple for someone (who is not them) to solve.

Usage of “just” can also be damaging outside of work contexts. Think about the common mental health solutions that people loath, “why don’t you just go outside”, and “why don’t you just stop hanging out with them”. Both of these examples are unhelpful no matter how you structure them, but the inclusion of “just” takes it a step further. Mental health conversations are a much different beast, which I’ll save for another post. For now though, if you find yourself using this type of language with someone who is struggling with their mental health, then I’d suggest taking a step back and think about different ways of supporting them. Often what someone needs in these contexts is to feel understood and supported, not a solution to the problems they might be facing.

Using “just” as part of a solution to someone’s problem does not make you a bad person, but it’s helpful to be aware of it’s impact. Some alternatives are as simple as deleting the word from the sentence, others require you to think more about the context of the problem from their perspective, and rewriting it to better address their needs. Generally people will understand that you are trying to help, even if a little bit of unhelpful language finds itself in your sentence. I’ve found it useful to talk openly about my journey so that others know they are allowed to call me out and hold me accountable as I slowly flail towards the person I want to be.

Hope this has been helpful! It’s still a long journey for me, and I’m certain it will remain that way for many years to come.

Thanks for reading. Feedback is always appreciated.

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