Which sounds better?
The other day I sent my sister an SMS. This is my sister, not a work colleague, a boss, or a stranger – my sister. It read-
“When you get a chance can you please send me the height and width of that bookcase and I’ll try to sort out a pick-up xx”
I sent it. While I waited for a reply I scanned my message again. Hang on, I’ve done it again, I thought.
I struggle with passive, weak language. It slips out of my mouth without warning, it hides in my smses and emails. I’ve actively tried, in the last few years, to be more direct and firm. To simply state what I want without apologizing. I am getting better, but obviously still have a way to go. So why didn’t I send her a message more like this:
“Hey sis, send me those bookcase dimensions and I’ll organize a pick up. Thanks.” ?
Still polite and friendly, but direct and clear. There’s a few reasons. And its common to many women. Judith Baxter, author of The Language of Female Leadership researched women in UK board rooms over an 18 month timeframe and discovered women are four times more likely than men to use weak language and to second guess themselves. Why do we do this?
- To avoid conflict
- To downplay our own power
- To be liked
Who do men not feel the need to gain approval from their audience? Why do they feel comfortable with their own power?
My guess its that it is years of practice and habit. These things are inculcated over years of watching our mothers, fathers and teachers. They are learnt as teenagers, reading magazines and watching movies. As teens we love to copy, to play roles and we pick up language nuances subconsciously. Eventually those roles become part of our persona. We daren’t be the bossy, brash one; we are terrified of being cast out of the group.
To be an effective leader, business owner and role model to my daughter and son, I am making a commitment to change these habits. To stand strong with my own power and to believe in myself and my needs. I am not a teenager playing roles, I am my own person and my words have value and power. I want my daughter to see this strength.
So whats my action plan?
To start by observing:
Listen to myself and others. Be hyperaware of language.
Re-read my SMSes and emails closely.
And then edit.
Edit myself – think before speaking.
Edit my emails and SMSes – scan each and every one and remove passive, meaningless words.
There are a few usual suspects. Words that slip easily into the conversation, words that belittle and reduce our own power without us even realizing it:
“I’m just going to pop down to the shops.”
“I’d just like to thank everyone for coming today.”
Why just? Why not be direct?
“I’m off to the shops.”
“Thank you for coming today.”
Doesn’t it sounds more confident, more credible?
It’s nice to apologize if you’ve made a mistake or arrived late to a meeting. But sometimes we apologize for no reason whatsoever.
This is from Jessica Bennett’s article on Time.com:
“Once, I was my trying to leave a bookstore and my way was blocked by a woman who was sitting on the floor,” screenwriter Nell Scovell tells me. “I hesitated and was about to turn around when she noticed and started to get up. ‘Sorry,’ she said, because she’d been blocking my path. ‘Sorry,’ I said, because I made her move. Then she bumped another woman who turned around and said, you guessed it, ‘Sorry.’ Three grown women all apologizing to each other for no reason in under five seconds.
I use ‘maybe’ all the time:
“Maybe we should go out to dinner this weekend.”
“Maybe I’ll go and have a shower quickly before we leave.”
Remove those ‘maybe’s’ from the beginning of the sentence and the words sing out clear and true – I want to go out to dinner, I want to have a shower, so why add those unnecessary words?!
As above – a really unnecessary power stealer that sits at the beginning of our sentences.
“I think I need to get a haircut.”
“I think we need to relook at the financials before making a decision.”
Take out ‘I think’ and these sentences are strong and direct.
The small changes we make can have large effects when they ripple out. Small changes in language can help you feel stronger and more confident.
Since I’ve made the transition to full time working mum, from stay at home mum, I’ve had to force myself to put MY needs first. If I have to stay late or go to a function – the household is going to have to deal with that.
Since I have started being more direct I have discovered it is easier to put myself first, to feel confident in my power and my journey – and to realize my value as a nourished, working mother to my kids.
I hope that as I continue with my conscious observation and editing, this confidence will continue to grow and take roots in all other aspects of my life.
What is your experience with passivity and weak words?
Take time to observe your language for a couple of days and see where you can improve.
Let me know how it goes!
Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In – esp. pages 26 – 30