by Bronwyn Morrissey
This week during a phone call with a colleague of mine, I heard something that made alarm bells go off in my head. We were talking about her position at work, and she stated that she was “just the VP of operations.” I paused – did she say that she was just a VP? I knew that the position she held in her department was critical to the success of the whole organization. What was making her diminish herself with the word “just?” This tentativeness around claiming her leadership power was one of many ways people hold themselves back, depreciating her perceived competence. Through my field of work as an Executive Coach and in my past as a Mortgage Banking Executive, I have noticed that women use these speech patterns more often than men, perhaps as a way to be viewed as cooperative and peacekeeping. But there is no need for women to placate to others with hesitation or apologies. Instead, I invite everyone to learn what disempowering language looks like and how to eliminate it from your dialogue. Using weak language dilutes the meaning of words and diminishes the confidence of the speaker. One type of weak wording is called “hedging,” when adverbs or adverb phrases, which contain little to no concrete meaning, are used to soften the meaning of a phrase. Just, kind of, actually, like, a little bit, and almost are of the most commonly used hedge words. Examples of hedging phrases are, “Can I have just a minute of your time?” as well as “I just want to check in about that deadline.” Hearing someone devalue their own project or skill set makes it sound as though they are truly lacking. When these filler words are slipped into a conversation, the speaker is giving up their assertive power; and, although it may feel like it’s the politer option, in reality treating our own opinions with respect shows the listener that we are deserving of it.
Another disempowering speech pattern is one that we are all familiar with, something my friend Tracy Hooper, public speaker and founder of The Confidence Project, calls the “sorry syndrome.” This is when someone apologizes even when they aren’t personally responsible for the situation. How often do you shoulder the blame for something that wasn’t your fault, or something that wasn’t a fault at all? During a recent coaching session with a friend, she related the story of an important conversation she had with a superior. She started off the conversation with “I’m sorry to bother you…,” undervaluing her important work message. We often apologize when relating difficult information or things people don’t want to hear. In this case, what she had to say was actually tremendously valuable and would improve his managing skills and leadership. While her actions were understandable, it would be more empowering for her to begin the next conversation with, “thank you for taking this time for our discussion.” For all of the situations you find yourself subject to the “sorry syndrome,” there is another way to communicate kindness and respect without undermining yourself.
Do you remember the last time you awkwardly tried to walk the same direction or through the same door as another person? Most of the time someone diffuses the situation with “sorry,” but a better reaction would be to say, “after you.” In the situation that you are delivering bad news or listening to complaints, unless you are truly responsible and feel distressed by the other’s misfortune, it is more appropriate to say “I sympathize with you” instead of apologizing.
For the final speech habit, we will look at something called “Tag Questions,” which is when the speaker turns a declarative statement into a question, making them appear uncertain and less assertive. Examples of Tag Question usage are,
“It’s cold outside, isn’t it?”
“You can understand me, right?”
“These pictures look good here, don’t they?”
These phrases imply self-doubt. If you close your statements with a Tag Question like, “do you know what I mean?” it asks for validation from the listener. This habit cuts off the flow of collaboration, because there isn’t room for balanced disagreement. It’s important to communicate in a way that allows for opposing ideas to
coexist, especially in a business setting. Doing so helps keep professional discussions from being driven by personal feelings. When the situation does call for feedback, questions such as, “what are your thoughts?” and “do you agree with me?” are more inviting to answer and allow room for discussion.
To implement these tools, self-awareness is the first step. Listen to how you might be diluting the meaning of your sentences and trying to protect the feelings of others by making yourself smaller. Second, accept that your message is important and that what you have to say matters. The power in your words will display your inner confidence, and using powerful language in turn will build your confidence.
The next step is to take a look at your written communication, where these patterns are easier to identify. Re-read your emails before you send them, looking for filler words and weak speech patterns. This way you can immediately see where you can improve. In a workshop of mine, a woman told me that she was so much more aware of her disempowering language when she started looking for the word “just” in her emails. “I saw just everywhere!” she told me 2 weeks later.
Another practice that may help is rehearsing your important conversations in front of a mirror, recording yourself and listening back, or asking a friend to listen over the phone and notice your patterns. This will help you feel more prepared, because even under stress, your brain already has a roadmap to follow and you can focus on presenting yourself as confident and open.
I challenge you to bring this awareness into how you talk about yourself and communicate your ideas. Conquer your internal doubt to speak with clarity and confidence, allowing for the warmth and openness you want to express to shine. Eliminate the disempowering speech patterns from your discourse through mindfulness and confidence. You are worth listening to.
Bronwyn is an Executive Coach and Leadership Development Trainer and speaker who guides her clients to reach their peak success, which creates the ability to live more productive, powerful and purposeful lives. She specializes is one on one coaching, mastermind team coaching and taking clients on leadership wilderness retreats. Contact Bronwyn at firstname.lastname@example.org.