Have you ever found yourself apologising for a suggestion, preceding an idea with a self-deprecating disclaimer, or phrasing a comment as a question in order to soften it? These communication habits can have a huge negative impact on how we’re perceived at work, making us sound tentative, unsure or unqualified.
Sadly, women are far more likely to fall into the trap of using self-sabotaging language. We’ve been conditioned to act this way all our lives. Many women identify with the paradoxical struggle of feeling not enough and too much at the same time - especially in the workplace. We are told to be powerful, but not too powerful. Assertive, but not too assertive. To have opinions but not be too opinionated. It’s enough to make you dizzy, if not totally disorientated.
Really the onus should not be on women to change. After all, it is rarely our communication style that is the root of the problem, only how it is perceived. One of our senior coaches, Cat Clancy, says the goal of our coaching is “not about changing you or making you come across as inauthentic or to communicate like a man, for that matter. It’s about helping you judge a space and find the right communication style for that space.”
But it’s worth considering whether you’re subconsciously communicating in a way that doesn’t do yourself justice. Forget the “right” way to communicate for a moment (if there even is such a thing). Let’s step back, remembering that our authentic selves are our most effective selves. Most likely these seven linguistic habits are simply habits that you can take on and off like a jacket, without compromising who you are. You are already worth being heard. Consider this review a way to get what you’re worth.
1. Tentativeness: substituting a question for an uncertain statement
Have you ever found your voice rising in pitch as you speak a sentence? Listen to yourself in a meeting and see if you do. Often we rely on the pitch and tone of our voice because we don’t want to appear confrontational with a direct question. We say a statement, with an air of ‘I’m not sure about this,’ that invites others to speak about the topic. Upspeak is a communication technique that works well in normal life and can help tease people out of their shell, but it can come across as insecure in a boardroom.
Asking direct questions may seem ruder at times, but it does emanate a sense of assurance. At LSW we train people using a powerful technique involving spoons, which help physically represent the concept of giving an idea to a listener. Once you have trained yourself to substitute upspeak for a statement or a direct question, you’ll have the power to choose which mode you use. When you want to communicate softly, you can, but when you want to show authority, you are no longer hindered by habit and instead can present the idea with certainty and therefore, impact.
2. Meandering or ‘thinking out loud’
Similarly, we can sometimes dull down our ideas by presenting them as if they are thoughts we are having in the moment. We say, “I wonder if…” rather than “I recommend…” because it dissuades aggressive disagreement.
Often in an all-female group our non-threatening mode of presenting ideas can help build rapport. Because in general women know what it means and interpret this behaviour in a positive way. But in some (often male-dominated) leadership circles, presenting ideas as thinking out loud reduces the validity of the idea. Switching to ‘I recommend that…’ might be more likely to provoke argument but it will also engender respect for your idea.
3. Over-apologising: “Sorry to be a pain, but…”
Do you find yourself apologising when you’re not in the wrong? For instance, you might rightly ask someone for an overdue project, but frame it as if the asking itself is a nuisance: “I’m sorry to bring this up but I’m still waiting for the project.”
Often we do this because we don’t want to bring tension or dischord into a relationship. In an attempt to put the relationship above the problem in hand we downplay the issue, apologise for rocking the boat, and inadvertently allow the issue to get lost.
The desire to maintain harmony in a relationship is ultimately a positive one, but you can still do this without apologising unnecessarily.
“I’m terrible at this sort of thing”, “I’m no expert, but…”
Our senior coach, Cat Clancy, says, “One of the very common habits I see with clients is the over-use of disclaimers. It’s a way of downplaying what they’re saying: ‘this might be a bad idea but…’ but then they put forward something very persuasive.”
We’re often well intentioned - we don’t want to claim our idea is the best. But when we do this, Cat says, “the listener tends to hear the disclaimer rather than the idea.” Likely, we’re underselling our ideas and waiting for someone else to vouch for it. But paradoxically, if we don’t wait for someone else to vouch for our idea, it’s more likely to attract support.
5. Does that make sense?
Likewise, we often apply our peace-keeping skills by asking if people are on the same page. Unfortunately in can soften our pitch. In some situations, prioritising relationship in this way can build rapport but in leadership circles it can dampen our persuasiveness.
Our senior coach, Cat Clancy, says, “Another habit I see come up with our clients is the tendency to use ‘we’ rather than ‘I’. What we did rather than what I did. They are reluctant to claim credit, worried about boasting. But sometimes you need to take the credit and shine. Despite all our progress, some workplaces are still molded around a male style behaviour based in action and dominance. In these environments, you only get rewarded for visible work.”
6. Hedges: “just”, “actually”, “kind of”
This language reduces the chance that you’ll be mistaken as arrogant. But sometimes that comes at the expense of being mistaken as unconfident. Depending on who you’re talking to, and the situation at hand, these words can help soften a blow that needs to be delivered. Ultimately, it’s about choosing the right communication for the space. If a softer approach is required, try softening your body language and delivery, rather than the language you use.
7. Rushing or waffling
The best of us can slip into rushing, waffling or mumbling at times. But we can train ourselves so our delivery is succinct and steady. One solution is to plan what we want to say in advance, breaking it up into a logical structure, such as problem - evidence - solution. Or in a different scenario, argument - evidence - conclusion. At times we may be put on the spot but if we have practised ordering information like this we are more likely to carry over the habit into the spontaneous.
Don’t change yourself. Definitely don’t believe you have to become more like a man. Feminine tendencies are incredibly effective for leadership and team management, for empathy, warmth, diplomacy and reading a situation. They only need to be balanced by adding a few other linguistic tools to your kit so that your authentic self shines in all situations and you get the recognition you deserve. If you identify with any of these seven habits, or if you feel disorientated by unspoken demands to be less and more at the same time, check out our elocution course.