Women still come in second when it comes to power and pay in the workplace. And much of the blame rests on a phenomenon that women not only can control but typically are believed to excel in.
The culprit: communication, according to Phyllis Mindell, author of How to Say it for Women (Prentice Hall Press). Especially at work, women–and some men–use weak language that sabotages their messages and ability to succeed. Whether standing before an audience, writing a memo or interacting with others, weak language “lessens the impact of our words, undermines our contributions and hinders our growth and influence,” she says.
Take simple grammar and one of the most pervasive usages of weak language, the “Indecisive I” used in these sentences: “I have a problem with my secretary; he never gets to work on time” or “I noticed that the door was left open too long.”
These are examples of when people describe work problems in sentences that begin with “I,” when they aren’t or shouldn’t be talking about themselves, says Mindell. These statements weaken you because:
They blame you for issues that aren’t yours. The “I have a problem with my secretary” sentence suggests that whatever the secretary does wrong is your problem rather than their problem.
These statements imply you’re not sure of the facts. The sentence about the door being left open is up for interpretation. Since the statement depends on someone’s perception, the speaker can be easily dismissed.
These statements make you appear immature and childlike. The mature thinking person speaks about the world without constantly referring to herself, she says.
Starting sentences with “I” encourages “touch-feely” emotional verbs instead of action verbs that drive powerful language.
The solution: Cut out the “I” word unless you’re talking about yourself, says Mindell. Stop before you speak and think, “What am I not talking about?” You are not talking about yourself, so next ask, “What am I talking about?”
Start the sentence with the subject. For example, in the sentence about the secretary, you could say: “My secretary has a problem: he never gets to work on time.” The sentence about the door is changed to: “That door was left open too long.” By talking about the subject instead of yourself, you come across as thoughtful, intelligent and worth listening to, she says.
When writing an e-mail message, as well, resist the temptation to start it with “I.” Interestingly, a recent survey by the Simmons Graduate School of Management Center for Gender in Organizations showed that a majority of businesswomen from a range of industries think it’s easier to express their thoughts on-line. They also believe their ideas are more likely to be heard, appreciated and responded to when they use online communication, compared to face-to-face.
Another tendency when speaking is to hedge and refuse to commit yourself-sometimes in order to soften a statement. This includes saying things like: “I just,” “The way I see it,” “Basically,” “I guess,” “I would like to, sort of,” “I don’t mean to,…but…” They’re destructive because you sound as though you doubt your own words and they don’t add any value to your point.
In general, many women hesitate to use powerful language because they think they’ll appear pushy. Others don’t know how to say no without seeming rude or unpleasant. But power and empathy are not mutually exclusive and powerful language is not unwomanly, says Mindell. You don’t have to be confrontational, arrogant or belittling.
“Powerful language does not take power away from or exclude others,” she says. Instead, it strengthens you.