Recently, I received an email that made my blood boil. The email – from someone I’ll call “John” – was passive aggressive, filled with accusatory rhetorical questions and generally infuriating. Several days later, my rage had passed and I was ready to respond, only I struggled to start my reply. It was with some difficulty that I edited my response to remove the ‘Thanks John’ at the outset. I wasn’t confused about my feelings. I certainly wasn’t grateful to John for his email and yet, without the initial ‘thanks for your email’, my response felt rude and unnecessarily adversarial; neither of which I wanted to be.
What struck me about this experience was how challenging it was for me not to be as polite as humanly possible. Like many women, I am conscious of the language I use to ensure I communicate clearly and confidently. I habitually check what I write for words or phrases that can undermine my authority and quickly remove or replace them. Yet the excessive amount of time it took for me to draft my response to John was a reminder that I needed a refresher on the basics of powerful communication.
Happily, there is no shortage of resources dedicated to helping people strengthen their communication skills. However, the volume of information can be overwhelming. So during my review of the basics, I made note of the key language faux pas women make, and how to combat them. I summarised these learnings into three key themes to help keep them top of mind, so that next time I can respond to one of John’s emails both powerfully and quickly.
It’s Not About You
Women tend to insert themselves into conversation when sticking to the facts would serve them better. Limit sentences that begin with ‘I’ as these will automatically turn the topic of conversation to you, instead of the topic at hand. If you’ve been given too many tasks to complete within a deadline, telling your boss ‘I don’t have time finish all the work’ has made their poor delegation your problem… because you are the one without enough time to finish the work. By removing the pronoun, you are able to deliver the message in a way that makes it clear you are not at fault and focuses on the issue you want to highlight: ‘there isn’t enough time to complete all the tasks’.
Prefacing sentences with qualifying phrases like ‘I think’, ‘I know you’re busy, but…’ or ‘in my opinion’ similarly weakens the message by diverting the focus away from the subject we are trying to highlight. Telling someone ‘in my opinion the presentation is too long’ makes the statement about you, and your opinion. By leading with the subject of the sentence (the presentation) your statement becomes impersonal and stronger: ‘the presentation is too long’.
This doesn’t mean there is never an appropriate time to qualifying a statement, such as when there is genuine uncertainty about the outcome. In such cases, you can include the inherent uncertainty without sounding unsure of yourself by starting your statement with the subject of the sentence. So, ‘I think this quarter’s results will be better’” becomes ‘this quarter’s results are expected to show strong growth’.
Beauty comes from Brevity
Get rid of superfluous language that adds nothing to the substance of your message. Words like ‘just’, ‘really’, ‘actually’ and ‘basically’ rarely add any value to your point and instead can weaken your message and take up unnecessary time. For example, ‘just following up…’ simply becomes ‘following up’ and a statement like ‘that solution is actually quite difficult to implement’ is changed to ‘that solution is difficult to implement’. The same can be said of tautologies such as ‘very important’, ‘inadvertently forgot’ and ‘completely false’. The additional words here (‘very’, ‘completely’ and ‘inadvertently’) don’t add any meaning and ultimately do more to detract from the power of your communication than to add to it.
Tailor Your Manners
Overuse of manners can completely undermine your authority. Profusely using ‘please’, ‘thank you’ and ‘I’m sorry’ is not the language of power. Resist any urge to say ‘I’m sorry’ unless it is appropriate in the circumstances and keep apologies brief. If you are tardy to a meeting, apologise for being late but avoid giving a reason for your infraction. Announcing to a room of colleagues ‘sorry I’m late – I had to take my dog to the vet and they sent him for x-rays so the appointment ran long’ is not only a weaker statement than a succinct ‘sorry I’m late’, but it also inadvertently invites others to judge the validity of your reason.
Use manners to your advantage by adding ‘please’ to the start of an instruction to avoid it sounding like a military order (and you being labelled as “bossy”): ‘please draft the presentation and submit it by Friday’. Finally, as difficult as it may be, don’t thank people unless they have done something you are thankful for. When tempted to express insincere gratitude (‘thanks for your [passive aggressive] email, John’), simply focus on the subject of your sentence and start with that: ‘Hi John, your email questioned the feasibility of the project timelines, which we can discuss’.
And when you have that discussion with John, implement these tips to ensure you establish yourself as an authority to be reckoned with… so that in the future, the “Johns” of this world will think twice about what words they choose to send your way.
Guest Blog by Louise Thorpe, enthusiastic mentor of women and passionate advocate for their advancement in (and out) of the workplace! Advisory Board member at OneTrust and Global Head of Privacy & Information Security Oversight at American Express.