By Kristen Quick
A few years ago, I sat in a meeting at a new job and ineffectively participated in a brainstorm. In hindsight, I had good ideas. But I sold them short, cautiously chiming in and qualifying my contributions with phrases like, “Well, I don’t know if this would ever work” and “Just throwing it out there.” I was meek, and my boss noticed.
I’ll never forget being pulled into his office after the meeting. My boss told me to cut it out and be more confident because we couldn’t have smart people being silent. I took his message to heart and appreciated the feedback, but fast forward five years and speaking up with confidence is still something I struggle with at times. I know I’m not alone.
I spoke to Cat Kingsley Westerman, Ph.D., Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at North Dakota State University about why women especially seem to play it safe in business by using soft language. Dr. Kingsley Westerman said this is common and easy for women to do because we don’t violate stereotypes when we’re “nice” in professional contexts, and in general, we tend to be more focused on relationships than our male counterparts may be. For me, using soft language, qualifying my ideas and playing it safe is often my way of not stepping on toes, or an attempt to maintain credibility if I feel unqualified to speak about a certain topic.
Since that moment in my boss’s office, I’ve viewed these tendencies as a weakness. But Dr. Kingsley Westerman said women can use this to their advantage in certain situations.
“Soft language and tone can be effective strategies for leveling the playing field and making others feel comfortable, and this is something that women often do well. This can promote inclusiveness, effective collaboration and idea sharing,” she said. “The key is knowing when to use these techniques and when to avoid them and opt for more direct communication. Your strategy should really depend on the goal of the interaction.”
According to Dr. Kingsley Westerman, “politeness theory” might explain why women often constrain their communication. Women grow up being told to be “nice” and society reinforces that expectation even in business, which can make women feel obligated to be polite, either because they were taught that or feel that it’s expected. When politeness theory is at play, we adopt social skills to protect ours and others’ self-image (also known as “face”) to feel and provide affirmation in a given social interaction. “Face saving” behaviors are used to strengthen rapport and relationships with those around us.
As an example, if you observe someone being interrupted in a meeting, rather than calling out the interrupter, you might invite the original speaker back into the conversation when time allows. Or, if you have an ask for a colleague you may try to minimize the way your request imposes on the other person by verbally acknowledging the inconvenience it may cause, saying things like, “I hope it’s not too much to ask…” or, “I know you’re really busy, but I was wondering if…”
So, when are these behaviors appropriate in business? They may be helpful in one-on-one settings that require rapport or relationship-building. Employing politeness theory and face-saving efforts can also be useful in group settings that include one or two dominant people that cause others to back down. Leaders may find these techniques useful for promoting participation in team settings to help less-dominant employees (often women!) feel comfortable speaking up.
While being polite can be an advantage in business, sometimes a more direct approach is needed and that is completely fine. After all, women should be able to play by the same rules as our male counterparts, who are generally able to be direct without anyone batting an eye. What you say and how you say it impacts your ability to influence, which is a big part of our professional success. So, understand what it is you’re trying to accomplish and adjust your approach accordingly.
Don’t use soft language, tone or body language during negotiations, when making a pitch, giving a presentation or advocating for something you need. If you tend to struggle and back down in these situations, Dr. Kingsley Westerman suggests taking advantage of other communication channels that may allow you to be more direct, such as email.
“Electronic communication affords us time to develop and edit our message. Write out your communication, read it out loud and remove filler language that doesn’t convey confidence,” she said.
Speak up, ladies!
Tips for effective communication
1. Know when and how to strategically use politeness.
Understand when it’s productive to use “face-saving” strategies in business, and understand when it is productive to be direct, even if it’s is perceived as rude for a woman.
2. Edit yourself.
Remove distancing language from your vocabulary. Don’t apologize for things that aren’t your fault and stop qualifying your ideas. Your self-deprecation may be funny for a while, but it can do damage over time.
3. Use silence.
Stop talking. Silence, while sometimes awkward, can be effective for putting the pressure on someone else. When making a pitch or negotiating something, make your request or question clear, then shut up. The more you say, the more likely you are to start using weak language.
4. Don’t wait to be invited to the conversation.
It’s easy to think that the person who’s talking the most knows the most, but that isn’t true. Don’t wait for dominant voices to invite you into the conversation. Speak up if you have something to say.
5. Enlist an ally.
Know the situations that may cause you to back down and ask your boss or someone else to be your ally. Talk about strategies for changing interactions that aren’t productive. Dr. Kingsley Westerman likes to use silent brainstorming so that everyone’s ideas are collected.
6. Be an ally for others.
In addition to being aware of what situations may cause you to use less confident communication, pay attention to the styles of those around you and create an environment where people are comfortable speaking up (men should do this, too!). Reinforce the contributions of those around you by using encouraging and inclusive language, like “great idea” and “what do you think?”