As a woman, you think of yourself as a good communicator. You love to engage in conversations with your peers, build relationships with customers and strategic partners, talk about ideas that get you excited, and even share water cooler conversation.
You’ve got creative ideas to share, perspectives that offer new insights, and feedback that adds value. And you love having conversations with other people as a way of building rapport and community.
Yet somehow, your ideas get overlooked—or they don’t get heard at all. You show up at the meeting ready to contribute, but somehow you get the sense that no one is taking you or your ideas seriously, and you can’t figure out why.
Often, when we are young, we are encouraged to be “good girls”. We are taught that our well-being, our likeability, and perhaps even our success relies on behaving in certain stereotypical ways, such as being polite, soft-spoken, agreeable, or just plain “nice”. And while we grow up and even learn other ways to be, it’s not uncommon that even as adults, our behavior is unconsciously shaped by those early messages, including how we communicate with others.
So if you find yourself wondering why you’re not being heard in meetings, or not having the impact you’d like to have in your work, you may be sabotaging your own communication by making one of the following mistakes.
How many times a day do you catch yourself saying “I’m sorry”? Whether it’s accidentally bumping into someone or dealing with a small mistake, women tend to apologize, whether or not they are actually at fault. It’s a way to smooth over conflict and reduce tension, but it makes you look like you’re to blame, when really you’re not. Try observing yourself during the day and keep track of how many times you say “I’m sorry”—how many of those are actually warranted? Certainly, when you do make a mistake worth apologizing for, you can do so—but apologize once, and then move into objectively identifying what went wrong, and figuring out a solution.
2. Asking questions instead of making statements.
When you couch a statement as a question, you are finding a way to express an idea or opinion without coming across as too pushy. Plus, it’s not uncommon to ask the question in the way you want it answered, which can come across as manipulative and annoying. “Don’t you think we should change our strategy to XYZ?” is much less powerful than “I propose that we change our strategy to XYZ. I’d like to hear your thoughts on that”. Try opening with “I think we should…” or ‘I’d like to…” as a way of offering your ideas more authoritatively.
3. Polling and seeking consensus.
There’s a time and a place for everyone to have a vote, and to ensure that all opinions are heard. Unfortunately, women tend to over-rely on this tactic when it comes to working with others. We want to hear everyone else’s ideas and compare them with our own before committing to a position or making a decision. And by doing so, we undermine our own leadership and weaken our voice. Ask yourself if you’re seeking new information, or simply looking for approval. Practice making statements similar to #2 above, rather than asking “what do you think?”
4. Using minimizing language.
How often have you acknowledged praise by saying something like “Oh, thanks—it was nothing” or “I just got lucky, I guess”? When you use words that diminish your hard work and efforts, you downplay your skill, talent, and know-how, and effectively suggest to others to take you less seriously, as well. This habit comes from a common childhood message to not brag or boast, yet as an adult it’s important to be able to speak confidently about your contributions and achievements without minimizing them. Try saying “thanks, I worked hard on that one!” or “thanks, I’m happy with the results as well”.
5. Tone, inflection, and volume.
Often, it’s not the content of your message that’s the problem, it’s how you sound. Common bad habits include speaking too softly, speaking too quickly, or using a high-pitched “little girl voice”. If you suspect you may be guilty of any of these, get feedback from a friend and see if they notice it as well. Pitch, intonation, and volume are all things that can be practiced and learned, and can and a subtle but effective element to the words that you use.
Clear, powerful communication is not just about having a great thought and speaking it out loud—it’s about the language you use and the way you express yourself, in such a way that others want to hear what you have to say and take you seriously. By overcoming these habits and practicing new, more powerful ways of showing up, you’ll increase your own credibility and presence, no matter what the situation.
About the Author
Kristy Swanson is Chief Catalyst and Velvet Hammer at Kristy Swanson Coaching, where she specializes in helping entrepreneurs, innovative self-employed go-getters, unconventional women in corporate worlds, and aspiring leaders to lead themselves, their careers, and their lives with courage and authenticity. You can find her on Facebook and on Twitter, and if you’re in Seattle you can find her lurking around great coffee shops.