The actress Jennifer Lawrence recently wrote about a disheartening experience she had expressing an opinion to a man who worked for her (versus the other way around). She wrote:
“A few weeks ago at work, I spoke my mind and gave my opinion in a clear and no-[BS] way; no aggression, just blunt. The man…said, ‘Whoa! We’re all on the same team here!’ As if I was yelling at him. I was so shocked because nothing that I said was personal, offensive, or to be honest, wrong. All I hear and see all day are men speaking their opinions, and I give mine in the same exact manner, and you would have thought I had said something offensive.”
From research, we know that it’s easy for a woman who is strong and assertive – like Jennifer Lawrence – to turn people off because she is blunt and tells it like it is. Regardless of their position within an organization, women are often less direct because they fear turning people off. A woman can be more concerned about how her message will be received rather than with what she wants to say. She doesn’t want to brag about what she knows to make her point or she apologizes for challenging the status quo. She softens her opinion because she worries about hurting someone’s feelings. She qualifies her point, with a preface or a prologue, as in, “I’m not sure this is important, but…” She feels the need to justify her position, assuming she’s up against GroupThink.
Sound familiar? How many times have you bitten your tongue when you wanted to confront something presented as fact that was in fact gossip, or even worse, “fake news”? To make this point, Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post wrote an amusing article about how “Women in a Meeting” use language compared to men. Petri rephrases famous quotes by men as they might have been said by a woman trying to avoid being seen as bossy or threatening. For example, instead of forcefully asserting “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” as said by Ronald Regan, a woman might say:
“I’m sorry, Mikhail, if I could? Didn’t mean to cut you off there. Can we agree that this wall maybe isn’t quite doing what it should be doing? Just looking at everything everyone’s been saying, it seems like we could consider removing it. Possibly. I don’t know, what does the room feel?”
Note that the statement is lengthier and less clear. What’s her point, I wonder? The paraphrased quotes in the Washington Post article aren’t just amusing, they make a point. History books are full of inspirational quotes by men. It’s time to change our style of communicating in meetings so that we women are quoted as often as men are. Here are some tips for women in meetings:
- Don’t apologize for expressing an opinion, challenging what other people think, or questioning the established assumptions about how things ought to be.
- Be succinct, straightforward and direct.
- Land on your great phrase at the beginning or end of the “paragraph”
- Get to the point without a hedge, apology, or preface.
- Be yourself and make your point simply in a way that everyone will understand.
- Lift people up with a memorable phrase that will inspire them to be their best.
Why not take the lead and live out loud, speaking up at meetings to express your unique idea? What’s the worst thing that can happen? The quote that rolls off my tongue is what FDR said at his First Inaugural Address to inspire Americans to find courage and to remain tenacious: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” By the way, according to the Washington Post article, a woman might have said this famous line with, “I have to say — I’m sorry — I have to say this. I don’t think we should be as scared of non-fear things as maybe we are? If that makes sense? Sorry, I feel like I’m rambling.”
There is hope. Inspirational quotes by articulate and brilliant women of diverse backgrounds are being captured in media outlets such as Forbes, USA Today, the Huffington Post and the BrainyQuote website. Author Erica Jong said, “When you don’t risk anything, you risk even more.” She might have been referring to the ways women muzzle themselves. Along those lines, Shery Sandberg paraphrases the famous Nike quote, “Just do it”, by stating that “Done is better than perfect.”
If you don’t share your big idea, who will? When you say it in a simple way that people can remember, you’ll be quoted too.
Great article Lois. I will pass this onto my women leaders as we have spoke about this dynamic. It is more powerful coming from you and the references you have. Thank you for your insghts.
Relly, I had the time to review responses to posts and want to belatedly thank you for sending me your reaction. I’d be thrilled if your female clients found this material useful and ideally, sign up for the blog posts, too! You’re a great role model for all of us in monetizing your clinical skills in ways that help leaders grow and evolve emotionally so that they succeed. So glad we’re in touch! LOIS