When you’re in a meeting or talking to your boss, how you express yourself might depend on your gender. And no matter how you do it, how you’re perceived might also depend on your gender.
During a standing-room-only luncheon workshop during the Spring Summit, communications expert Pamela Jett shared examples of good and bad ways to say what you mean and how to make changes that will enhance professional growth.
Focusing on positive communications, Jett said it’s important, especially for women, to be aware that the words they say in a professional setting might not be understood the way they’re meant.
“These are small changes you can make in your communication that can make a big difference,” she said. “Words matter. We want to get rid of the words that make us less confident and give less impact and replace them with words that do make an impact.”
Showing examples on a slideshow presentation, Jett started with one of the most common linguistic mistakes women make at work: saying sorry. When the situation really does call for an apology, she recommended replacing it with “I apologize.”
“It’s much more powerful,” she said. “People take you seriously. When ‘I apologize’ is not appropriate, it’s time to empathize. We want to up our leadership game by paying attention to the things other people don’t think matter.”
She discussed what she called weak and powerless language – the language women often use when trying to share their thoughts or build consensus at work. For example, Jett said, never timidly offer “I have an idea,” even if you do have an idea.
“‘Idea’ is a weak and powerless word,” Jett said. “Say ‘I have a solution.’ And if you’re going to be bold enough to say ‘I have the answer,’ you best have the answer. It might be better to say ‘I have an answer.’ If we can get rid of the word ‘idea’ and start using stronger language, we really can make an impact in our organization.”
Other examples are “I feel,” and “I think,” which invite criticisms of emotion or hesitancy, she said.
“Don’t label thoughts feelings because we get a reputation of being too sensitive,” Jett said. “Some of you are thinking that’s not fair, and I agree. This is just how it is. I know I can’t change those circumstances, but what I can do is learn to navigate them more clearly.”
She repeatedly encouraged the audience to speak declaratively and resist the temptation to hedge.
“Say ‘This will increase margin,’” she said. “Own it! Plant your flag! We call this ‘nice girl syndrome:’ We’re taught to play nice, we don’t want to rock the boat, we want to make everyone happy. Say what you think and then ask an open-ended question: ‘This will save time. What are your thoughts?’”
When Jett discussed the way society often labels authoritative little girls “bossy,” she got a round of applause from the room. “I’d love to get rid of the phrase ‘bossy’ and say it’s ‘leadership skills,’” she said.
Other examples of language to change included:
Hope: “Please don’t think I am saying don’t have hope in your life,” Jett said. “It can also make us sound really tentative. Replace with ‘I am confident.’ If you want to come across as confident, start saying you’re confident. ‘I’m confident this will help. I’m confident this will be useful for your team.’ Or I trust. ‘I trust you’ll find this useful.’”
Help: “Stop helping at work. Stop helping grow your business,” Jett said. “If you want to be viewed as a senior leader in your organization, if you want to be seen as a mover and shaker, stop helping. That makes it seem as if it’s someone else’s priority and you’re the help.” The biggest example of this is the phrase “I’m happy to help”
Minimizers such as “just,” “little,” “basically,” “slightly” and others. “These are words that make what we’re talking about seem less,” she said. “Whatever you do, do not say ‘I have a little idea.’ If you want your idea to be highjacked and turned into someone else’s big solution, call it a little idea. Don’t have a little idea, have a solution.”
Approval-seeking language, such as “don’t you think?” tacked onto the end of a sentence. “We are less powerful when we are seeking approval,” she said. “You don’t even need to use the words. A lot of us as women will end statements with inflection that turns a statement into a question.”
Jett acknowledged that eliminating all the problem words might seem impossible. “Some of you are thinking ‘I can’t even talk at all now,’” she said with a laugh, explaining that women use roughly twice the number of words men do to say the same thing.
“Lot of that is due to hyperbole, fillers and minimizers,” she said. “One of the best ways to get rid of this is to have access to a language pattern.” She suggested a language pattern called the Triple S Solution, which stands for situation, solution, support.
“Here’s what’s going on, this is what I believe we should do, do I have your support?” she said.
After the workshop, several women stayed in the room to ask Jett specific questions and talk over what they’d learned. Brooke Tabony, a Whirlpool representative, said the Triple S Solution especially struck a chord for her.
“It’s not only for spoken communication but also how to be more successful in email communications,” she said.
The workshop opened her eyes to the communication mistakes she has made and gave her some ideas on where to start changing her language, she said.
“We try to soften everything,” Tabony said. “‘I think’ might be a good idea place to start and instead just say ‘This is my solution, this is my plan.’”
Crystal Brewer of Down’s TV & Appliance said she found a lot of things useful in Jett’s presentation.
“It was empowering,” Brewer said. “I’m new on the school board and active on other committees, and I can see how this is going to help me in all aspects.”
Kathy Keese of Texas Appliance said she especially liked Jett’s idea of setting a regular calendar reminder of a word or phrase to work on.
“Maybe ‘I’m sorry’ – I’ll start with that,” Keese said. “I like ‘I have a solution or I have a plan.’ I like that a lot. I enjoyed it because I do all those things.”
Jett said the goal is to be “relentlessly positive” in all communications by purposely choosing words that reflect confidence, skill and leadership.
“It’s impossible to make a positive impact using negative communications,” she said. “Effective and productive optimism shows up in the words we choose to use and the words we choose to lose.”