Language Warning! Four bad habits that undermine your credibility

The gender diversity (or gender equality) debate has been going on for years and seems to have gathered a new and welcome momentum.  Some of the issues we face include unconscious bias, conscious bias and downright discrimination.  However sometimes there is a piece of the pie that we women need to own. Sheryl Sandberg talks about “leaning in”.  I call it stepping up, speaking out and taking charge. 

When it comes to gender politics in the office, just like dressing appropriately, we also need to pay attention to our language and speech habits. If we want a seat at the “big table” then we need to speak like grown ups and “own that sh*t”.  And the following four habits that we women frequently demonstrate undermine our credibility and authority all in one - without us even knowing.

“And anyway, who wears a tiara on a jungle gym?”
— Sheryl Sandberg

1. Just – the most recent culprit  in the language debate is the use of “just”. Earlier in 2015 Ellen Petry Leanse, founder, Karmahacks; strategist, advisor, online pioneer was published in Business Insider calling women out on it.

I was delighted and couldn't agree more, because the word is a pet peeve of mine.  I hear this word all the time and mostly from women. Let’s be honest, frequently there is no just about it. At the very least the word is redundant – and at the most it diminishes the opinion, status or impact of the request by the initiator/asker.

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  • “I just wanted to find out …..”
  • “I was just booking for …..”
  • “ I am just enquiring about …..”
  • “Just following up …”
  • “Just checking in …."

My own research (sample size of about six close personal female friends for brunch) determined that the use of the word is part of our feminine socialisation – not to big note ourselves, not to stand out, not to offend, not to challenge, to be safe and (let’s own the negative impact of fashion magazines, dieting and body image too) to be diminutive, small and not a bother.

So check your emails before you hit send.  Listen to your own speech patterns. Then remove “just”. This one small change makes your communications far more powerful. Try it. You may be surprised at how confident you sound and the results that you get with this one simple change.

2. Deflecting compliments . Oh boy. And most of us think we are simply doing the right thing!

You know when someone pays you a compliment and you say;

 “Oh, it was nothing, it was just my job, in fact the team did most of the work and … the reality is the project didn’t go so well. We hit a few speed bumps, we crashed into a few hurdles ………..” ? 

Sound familiar?

It’s okay to accept a compliment as it is and simply say thank you.  It makes the giver feel good, it boosts your own confidence plus it helps with your own credibility. Repeat after me -

“Deflecting compliments undermines credibility.
Accepting compliments boosts it.”

As women we’ve been taught time and time again not to big note ourselves, not to take credit unless its totally ours, and not to stand out . Why? Because it's allegedly “unladylike”. 

Well in a future where women are leading equally with men it’s totally unprofessional (non gender specific) to not accept a compliment.  So own it, accept it and maybe dish out a few compliments of your own as you see how they boosts the confidence of both the giver and the receiver.

3. Apologising for strong opinions

"Women are 37%* more likely than men to identify their own behavior as worthy of an apology, which leads to women apologizing more frequently than men do ... which in turn, unfortunately, fuels the double standard that women who aren’t “apologetic enough” are bossy (or worse)."  Upworthy July 2014

All true and correct according to a 2010 study by Karina Schuman and Michael Ross entitled Why Women Apologize More Than Men; Gender Differences in Thresholds for Perceiving Offensive Behavior.

However what’s more concerning is that as women we sometimes apologise for having strong opinions.  You’ve probably heard it in meetings or in strong discussions where sometimes, if a woman lands a contrary opinion, she apologises.

“If you set out to be liked, you will accomplish nothing.”
— Margaret Thatcher

Learn to accept responsibility for your own thoughts, ideas and opinions. They are just that; thoughts, ideas and opinions, not "truths".   These thoughts, ideas and opinions are based on the evidence you have access to at that time. 

As women we apologise even when its not our fault – when we bump elbows with someone on the plane next to us, when we are startled and when we talk over someone. Sheryl Sandberg says its because have been told we are too bossy since we were little girls. Sound familiar?  

It’s ingrained into us and a hard pattern to break.  But if you want to see evidence of what a difference it makes then check out this powerful campaign by Pantene – demonstrating the power of turning off your “automatic” sorry response.  

4. And finally - Uptalk – more commonly known as ending a sentence that is not a question with an upward inflection .

If you have any ambitions to head up a team, lead an organisation or influence others to join you in your new venture you’ll want to knock this one on the head - immediately.

Linguistic experts don’t really know where it came from but it’s fairly wide spread and, unfortunately Australians and New Zealanders are rather expert at it.  In a 2014 BBC article they call attention to the rise of the upward inflection (pun intended) and how it sounds like we are asking for permission all the time. This in turn diminishes your power,  your credibility and authority. 

Picture this - you are a high performer, possibly even a perfectionist, with an eye for your next big promotion.  You go in for your performance appraisal and you are totally and awesomely prepared.  In outlining your work, your input and the key measurable outcomes, every second statement you make ends with a upward inflection - which make it sound like a question.  

  • Where is the power in this conversation?
  • How credible do you think it sounds?

More importantly it sounds like you are seeking permission - rather than making statements - therefore undermining your best attempts at negotiating that extra pay rise or next big promotion.

The fix for it all?

The ego’s deep, ingrained need for approval is hard to fix - so you’ll need to be vigilant. 

  • Next time you have a conversation I challenge you to record yourself and listen for the tone and melody of your conversation.  Listen out also for apologies, the word just and also compliment deflection. Determine whether or not they were necessary - or simply ingrained patterning, people pleasing or seeking approval behaviours.
  • Ask a trusted colleague, coach or mentor to give you feedback next time you are in a meeting or in a situation where you feel stressed or uncertain.
  • Rehearse a few times and then record yourself again so you can hear what's really going on.  Fake it till you make it is probably great advice in this instance.
  • I've even heard of a manager using this as a teaching point with the entire team to ensure the department operated more efficiently and effectively - supporting each other and getting better results as a result.

So why is this important?

We're in interesting times right now.  As women we want to lead but frequently find the journey there is not easy at the best of times and downright challenging at the worst.  You want to make sure that your ambition "tool kit" is fitted out with the best of the best, sharpest, high quality tools that help you get ahead more easily.  Credibility, authority and expertise are great tools  - and we need to make sure that we don't accidentally undermine ourselves despite best efforts and intentions.

Vive la révolution! 

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—    If you missed it - 3 Signs Your LinkedIn Profile Sucks

  • I am the creator of The Ambition Revolution – the science and  art of amping smart and savvy. 

  • I mentor busy professionals to ensure they remain strategic, agile and focused on the bigger game. 

  • I also work with organisations who are trying to increase the profile of women in leadership, but struggling to do so.

Feel like your leadership journey has stalled? Email ablesing@amandablesing.com to set up a 30 min one on one to learn nore. Helping clients shift from invisible to invincible in just 12 months