When I meet women who have come to our firm for coaching, one of the questions I typically ask is, “How do you feel about your ability to project confidence?” I still remember one woman named Sarah who replied enthusiastically that she now sounds so much more confident than she once did.
As she put it, “A few years back I was perhaps that very apologetic, very cautious female who was always trying to lighten things rather than sounding sure of myself. Recently I have definitely tried to be more forthright, and I think I am sounding more confident, though I am not sure.”
I was pleased she felt she had progressed so much, but as you can see from her response, her language still showed considerable tentativeness. Words like perhaps, trying, tried, very, think and not sure weaken her statements.
Many women are not even aware that the words they choose can sound weak to others. While we often use this self-effacing language to create a more collegial or collaborative atmosphere, it actually diminishes us and ends up making us sound less like leaders.
When Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative Party in England in 1975, she spoke as someone who was not comfortable with her leadership role. When a BBC interviewer asked her how she felt about her new responsibilities, she replied, “I’ve been so busy that I haven’t had really much time to think about it. After all, I know I am still only me, and so do my family. But I am very much aware of the responsibilities. And a little bit apprehensive. Who wouldn’t be, when you think of the names that I follow?”
Who would believe that was the Iron Lady speaking?
Thatcher eventually became a strong voice with every word she pronounced. We, too, need to strengthen our language if we want to create powerful scripts and be inspiring leaders.
5 Weakening Patterns
The following patterns are ones women use often–and they make us sound unsure of ourselves.
We ask permission to speak when there is no need to. For example, a woman might say, “Do you mind if I add something?” rather than just saying it. The notion that you’re merely adding on to what others have said–and asking whether you can even do so–casts you as a subordinate.
We apologize far too much. We do it in our voicemail greetings, “I’m sorry I’m not able to take your call,” or “I’m sorry I’m not here.” Women do this when they enter a conversation, as in “Excuse me;I’d like to comment on Jim’s point.” Or, when someone comes around the corner and there is a near-collision, who apologizes and steps aside? Typically, the woman. A woman in our seminar told us that this point really resonated with her: “I often apologized when introducing a difficult topic or when approaching someone who had other priorities. I’ve stopped apologizing so much.”
We often ask questions when we know the answers. An astonishing 80 percentof women say they prefer to ask questions even when they know the answer. Why? If they want to be collaborative, they may say, “These numbers are right, aren’t they?” when they know they areright. One executive said to her staff member, “Are you comfortable that the audience will be able to relate to those particular messages in your presentation?” What she really wanted to say was, “Your messages need to be clearer and more relevant for this audience.” But because she didn’t want to offend, she turned a statement into a question. A woman might also ask, “Do you think it would be possible for you to . . .” when asking her team member to do something, rather than saying, “I’d like you to . . .” At other times women follow every statement with “Do you know what I mean?” or “Isn’t that right?” or “You know?” or “Okay?” Though such questions are intended to get reinforcement from their listener, they make the speaker sound unsure.
We frequently use modifiers that weaken our tone. The worst kind are “mincing modifiers,” such as “just”–as in “I’d just like to say something.” We also use “a little bit,” as in “I’m a little bit concerned.” Or only and maybe as in “It’s only a thought, but maybe we should . . .” We use “wiggle words” such as perhaps, probably, basically, hopefully, sort of, or quite. All these modifiers make women sound tentative and unsure of themselves. It’s best not to use too many modifiers at all, because words like very, definitely, truly, largely, always take away from the word they’re modifying. Think about it: saying “I’m definitely ready to take the stage” is less strong than “I am ready to take the stage.”
We favor softer verbs. We say, “I think there is something we can learn,” rather than, “I’m confident/I know there is something we can learn.” We say, “I guess” rather than admitting that we know something. We say, “I’ll try to” and “I’ll attempt to” far too often. And we use “I hope,” “I feel” and “I trust”–all of which sound weak. Saying at the end of an email, “I hope this proposal meets your needs,” suggests that you aren’t sure it does–not a message you want to pass on to a customer. And saying, “I feel that we should do this . . .” sounds as though you don’t really know whether we shoulddo this. Instead, say, “I am convinced that we should do this” or simply “We should do this.” Women claim to be “not sure,” even when they aresure, and they weaken their verbs even more when they have to ask someone to do something. For example, a female store manager asking a subordinate to replace some stock might use prefatory statements like “Maybe you could . . .” Who comes across as the subordinate?