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How Women Undermine Themselves With Words

Tara Mohr’s first piece for goop—Why Women Criticize Each Other—resonated deeply, explaining not only why we sometimes rush to judge each other, but also how our Inner Critics undermine our self confidence and create limitations that make us feel—and behave—small. This concept was one of the theses in Mohr’s book, Playing Big, which is a great read on how women can begin to break some of these destructive, often culturally inherited habits. Mohr, a career and personal growth coach who teaches women all over the world how to step into their power, also tackles speech patterns in Playing Big, specifically how women—in an effort to soften their communication—diminish their words. We asked her to take us through the paces.

Q

What are the holes that you see women falling into most frequently when they speak?

A

I love talking about this topic because it brings about so many “aha!” moments when I speak to women: So many have no idea they do all sorts of self-sabotaging things in speech and writing.

It’s pretty amazing to suddenly see your unconscious habits and then be able to let go of them.

Here are some of the “little things” women do in speech and writing that aren’t really “little.” In fact, they have a huge impact in causing us to come across as less competent and confident:

  1. Inserting just: “I just want to check in and see…” “I just think…” Just tends to make us sound a little apologetic and defensive about what we’re saying. Think about the difference between the sound of “I just want to check in and see…” and “I want to check in and see…” or the difference between “I just think” and “I think…”

  2. Inserting actually: “I actually disagree…” “I actually have a question.” It actually makes us sound surprised that we disagree or have a question—not good!

  3. Using qualifiers: “I’m no expert in this, but…” or “I know you all have been researching this for a long time, but…” undermines your position before you’ve even stated your opinion.

  4. Asking, “Does that make sense?” or “Am I making sense?”: I used to do this all the time. We do it with good intentions: We want to check in with the other people in the conversation and make sure we’ve been clear. The problem is, “does that make sense” comes across either as condescending (like your audience can’t understand) or it implies you feel you’ve been incoherent.

    A better way to close is something like “I look forward to hearing your thoughts.” You can leave it up to the other party to let you know if they are confused about something, rather than implying that you “didn’t make sense.”

I get so many emails from women who are excited to share with me how people responded to them differently once they 1) stopped using the undermining phrases in their speech and writing and 2) communicated warmth in a more positive way (a friendly greeting and closing, for example).

Many women—especially more junior women—share that when they took all the qualifiers out of their emails, they started getting much quicker and more substantive responses to their requests.

Q

In Playing Big, you also write about apologizing for things when there’s no need to apologize—can you elaborate?

A

It’s an unconscious habit many women have: To apologize before asking a question, to apologize because they are standing at the milk and sugar station at the café while someone else is waiting for their turn, to apologize in all kinds of situations where an apology is not warranted! We apologize simply for taking up space.

This was humorously and very vividly parodied in the Pantene “Not Sorry” commercial last year, and clearly a lot of women recognized themselves in it, and the video went viral.

A couple friends of mine who lived together in graduate school each noticed how much the other one apologized when there was no good reason to—and it started to drive them crazy! They set up a jar in the house—they each committed to put in a dollar whenever they unnecessarily said sorry—and they held each other to it. They had fun with it and they stopped the habit.

Q

Don’t men use these speech habits, too?

A

They do, but the research on this topic has found that lower-status groups in any culture use these kinds of speech habits more than high status groups, and that women use them more than men.

Second, and most importantly, the research shows that when men use these speech habits, it does not impact how authoritatively they come across. For women, these habits do have a negative consequence in terms of how we’re perceived.

“It’s an unconscious habit many women have: To apologize before asking a question, to apologize because they are standing at the milk and sugar station at the café while someone else is waiting for their turn, to apologize in all kinds of situations where an apology is not warranted! We apologize simply for taking up space.”

When women use these speech patterns, it evokes some negative stereotype images of women (that we don’t know what we are talking about, that we aren’t confident, that we are ditzy, etc.) but when men use the same speech patterns, there’s no negative stereotype evoked. The same language is “read” differently by the audience—whether that audience is male or female.

Q

Why do we use these speech habits?

A

That’s a great question. Some of it is simply habit. We hear other girls talking like this in our lives, and we absorb countless hours of women and girls talking like this in films and TV, and so we start doing the same.

There’s a deeper reason, too. Most women are unconsciously using these speech habits to soften our communications, to try to ensure we don’t get labeled—as women so often do—as bitchy, aggressive, or abrasive. We worry other people will perceive us that way, or we’ve got that internal monitor voice inside saying, “Don’t come across as bitchy!” We put in the actuallys, the justs, the “I’m not an expert but…” to make sure we seem humble, nice, likable, which interferes as we try to get our ideas across.

I also believe that it’s because for centuries, women did not have the political and human rights to protect our safety if we spoke up and threatened or angered those around us. Of course we learned to soften our communication! But now, we don’t need to keep all those old patterns with us.

Q

So how do we communicate powerfully but not come across as “bitchy?”

A

Honestly, I would first ask women to consider, am I okay with sometimes being considered bitchy by some people? Being seen that way doesn’t mean you are that way. In our culture, an outspoken, confident woman is probably not going to be liked by everyone all the time.

“Most women are unconsciously using these speech habits to soften our communications, to try to ensure we don’t get labeled—as women so often do—as bitchy, aggressive, or abrasive.”

And at the same time, of course, we need to be mindful of how we are coming across to those we want to influence, reach, and work with. The key big idea is this: Instead of using the self-diminishing qualifiers (just, actually, sorry but, I’m not sure but, etc.) so that you seem “nice,” communicate both your warmth and competence in a proactive, positive way. That’s very different than trading off how competently you come across, in order to be seen as more likable.

Q

Can you give us some examples?

A

First, notice what the culture is like in your company or industry. I used to have an assistant on my team who worked half-time for me and half-time for someone in tech. We often laughed about how different her writing voice was in each half of her job—the way of communicating warmth in the tech world was far more succinct and less effusive than it was in my world—personal growth and coaching. You want to find a style that’s authentic to you, while also being conscious of the industry or organizational culture you are operating within.

“In our culture, an outspoken, confident woman is probably not going to be liked by everyone all the time.”

Then, open and close with something warm and friendly, using that to bookend your communication and make sure your intended tone comes through. In the heart of the communication, focus on the substance of what you have to say.

Positive ways to communicate warmth include:

  • Warm greetings in your communications.
  • Simple positive statements that warm up the tone of communications like, “So looking forward to meeting with you next week and hearing your feedback.”
  • Light use of humor.
  • A bit of non-work conversation at opening or closing of work communications.

Q

How should we start communicating more powerfully?

A

Don’t try to change all your undermining speech habits all at once! Pick one (Just? Actually? Does that make sense?”) and focus on it for the week. The goal is not to completely eliminate the word or phrase—that would be unrealistic. Instead, aim to notice when you hear yourself using it, and to course correct in the moment. Slow down and skim your emails before you send, notice where the undermining qualifier shows up, and edit it out! Practice, and you’ll slowly change the habit.

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