Are Your Words Holding You Back?

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You are the only one who can speak up to share your thoughts and opinions explains Marie Herman

Many administrative professionals (especially women) are inadvertently sabotaging themselves in the workplace through their word choices and communication mannerisms. These habits result from our innate desire to be people-pleasers and peacemakers. Our word choices can make us look weak, ineffective, indecisive and fearful. The good news is that you can train yourself into a new habit once you become aware of the bad habit!

Stop Apologizing

We can create an impression of low self-confidence or meekness with our word choices, such as offering apologies where we have done nothing wrong. If you have a habit of responding to people regularly with, “Oh, I’m sorry (fill in the blank)” for something that isn’t your responsibility, you may be a serial apologizer. Stop apologizing for things you don’t need to be sorry about.

If this is an issue for you, start monitoring your language to see how often you say it during a day. Often it is a habit that we have developed without even realizing it.

There are appropriate times to use the words – when someone has a death in the family, when you knock something over on someone’s desk.

But there are many more times when it is not appropriate or necessary to use the words, such as when you are voicing an opinion, or asking a question for clarification, or bringing up alternative perspectives. It can convey sarcasm in certain situations (which is not professional), or uncertainty, or it can imply that we are taking responsibility even when it is someone else’s responsibility or actions that caused an issue.

It’s Not Always a Question

Pitch is an important voice quality in public speaking. It’s partly which words we choose to emphasize in a sentence. It can mean the difference between saying *I* didn’t say Jane was a jerk (as though someone else said it) or I *didn’t* say Jane was a jerk (as in, I never said anything of the sort) or I didn’t *say* Jane was a jerk (as though I thought it, but didn’t say it out loud).

An area where this repeatedly shows up in women’s communication is when we turn statements into questions by raising the inflection in our voice at the end of sentences. This can make it sound like we are asking a question (or begging permission) when we should be stating facts or simply providing information.

“I think we should invest in our staff.”

When each word is emphasized equally, that is a statement, pure and simple.

When we instead pause after “I think we should…” and then state the rest of the sentence with an increasingly higher pitch, it becomes a question, a “maybe”. It implies that we don’t really believe what we are saying or that we are questioning if we really should do that or casual “hey, I’m just throwing this random idea out there for consideration, but if you want to ignore it, go ahead”.

It does not convey a strong firm opinion or a proposal. It indicates a lack of clarity and unsureness.

Now some people would say, it’s fine to phrase our suggestions as questions (the classic “have you thought about…?” or “have we considered…?” or “what do you all think of…?”). That technique is appropriate in a group setting when you are raising an issue for discussion that does need to have group consensus. That is a different situation than our everyday conversational statements.

Don’t Ask Permission

I recently attended a networking lunch. The leader was new to the role. As people were going around the room, introducing themselves, when they reached the end of the first table, they looked to the leader for guidance as to which direction she would prefer them to go (back and forth or across the room). She responded, “Let’s go towards the back, if that’s all right with you?”

I noticed she used that phrase multiple times during the event, often when giving instructions that were straightforward (“we’ll take a break for 5 minutes, if that’s all right with you?”). Now, naturally, part of this comes from being new to the role. She was lacking confidence in her authority. I am sure that will improve with time as she becomes more comfortable with her responsibilities.

Some of it as well though is probably a fallback position for someone who is a peacemaker by nature. She is someone who doesn’t want to ruffle feathers or make waves or sound like she is barking orders.

In the business world though, using expressions of that nature, particularly in those types of circumstances make it seem like you are asking permission despite the decision being legitimately yours. This can definitely be seen as a lack of self-confidence and a fear of making a misstep.

In addition, it’s the kind of phrase that can seriously backfire. What if it is not all right with people even though it must be done? What are you going to do? Are you going to allow others to intervene and run your meeting and make your decisions for you? What if it is OK with everyone but one person? Why set up that type of conflict and drama unnecessarily?

There is a time and place to ask for everyone’s input and feedback. In fact, it’s critical as a leader that people be given an opportunity to voice opinions and disagree with you.

However, there is also a time to simply lead, to make a decision, communicate it to others and move forward.

If something is within your domain, then own it! Don’t ask permission to take actions that are rightfully yours to take. There is absolutely an element of power in decision making and when you ask permission (even unintentionally), you are giving away your power.

Own Your Questions

Many women are nervous of speaking up, especially in meetings. This can hold you back in many ways, from being afraid to voice opinions (they won’t listen to me) or ask questions during meetings (it’s not my place), to sounding like you lack confidence in your own leadership ability or opinions (this is probably a silly idea or they already thought of it). If you don’t believe in your own ideas, how can you expect anyone else to do so?

We need to have enough confidence in our questions and opinions to be willing to raise perspectives that others in the room may not have considered. As administrative professionals, we tend to think that we are just there to take minutes and observe, or be the recorder of the events, as though we are lesser in value than others in the room.

Then we turn around and get upset when we aren’t treated as full partners outside the conference room (and sometimes in it).  In fact, we have created that paradigm ourselves by not acting as full partners in every area of our work life and owning our actions.

Much of how people treat us in life is directly related to how we allow them to treat us.

We train people in how to treat us with every action we take and every action we accept that others take. We can start now to develop a different relationship.

Recognize That Your Role Is So Much More

We need to gain a broader understanding than we may currently have in order to be comfortable with speaking up or asking insightful questions. So be sure to educate yourself on your executive and coworkers, your department, your company, your industry, and the world at large. Understand the acronyms of your field, the trends, the goals of your company, the impact of outside events, the path of your committees, etc. Don’t isolate yourself, thinking your only responsibility is to add the commas in the PowerPoint presentations. Immerse yourself in understanding the bigger picture.

Your role is so much more important. You are one of the last lines of cross checking, not only catching errors that could be critical, but also acting as a filter to advocate for the senders and the recipients, a bridge between management and staff. By looking at the larger picture, you can prevent drama, ensure information is disseminated appropriately and reduce the number of questions people will have following receipt of communications. How? By thinking ahead of the questions that people will have and trying to bring unheard perspectives to the forefront.

In this case, it’s not your words that would be holding you back, but your lack of speaking up.

I recognize that there can be very real consequences to speaking up. Some managers (especially insecure ones) can take questions as a challenge to their authority. There is a level of tact that needs to be incorporated into this process. But it’s important that we embrace our own strengths and stand up for what we believe in, especially to help others.

Own Your Voice

Voice projection is a powerful tool in building confidence. When we own our voice loud and proud and project to share it with the back of the room, we appear comfortable in our own skin and confident of what we are saying. We don’t need to shout, but we need to speak without hesitation or timidity.

It’s also helpful to breathe! When we are nervous, our breathing tends to become shallow and our pulse rate faster. That means we start to speak faster and either use a higher pitch (sounding somewhat frantic) or a quieter voice (as we kind of withdraw into ourselves as we pray the moment ends quickly).

People will be more inclined to follow someone who is confident in the direction they are leading people. This is one of those situations where the classic “fake it till you make it” expression applies. Even if you don’t feel confident, in a public speaking situation such as presenting at a meeting, use a clear strong voice and make good eye contact and you will appear as though you are.

Always remember in those uncomfortable speaking situations that what other people observe is the outside. They don’t know what nerves might exist behind the scenes if you don’t outwardly manifest the symptoms. Often, we think we are displaying a lot more nerves than we actually are, because we tap into our feelings instead of focusing on our reality.

Receiving (and Saying) Thanks

When you do a great job and people thank you for your effort and acknowledge the hard work you did and how well things went, this is not the time for modesty, even though most women have trained themselves that it is.

Instead of saying, “no problem” or “it was nothing”, try this: “Thank you so much. I really appreciate your comment. Would you do me a favor? Put that statement in writing to my manager and copy me?” They won’t always do it, but you’d be surprised how often people will follow through and act on your behalf.

Regular communication of this nature to your manager from your peers will help to build a sense of goodwill towards you and respect in the workplace. Having others appreciate your work and express that appreciation to you and your manager is a great way to build your value as the expert in your space.

These types of communications are very useful to have on hand when performance review time comes around. In fact, I have a binder of these types of comments where I printed them out and put them in sheet protectors in a section called Peer Feedback. I would use it to cheer myself up on a bad day and carry it along to job interviews. It’s been a fantastic way for me to stand out in many past job interviews.

Together, these suggestions can help you to find your inner confidence and encourage you to begin sharing your gifts with the world. You are unique. There is no-one else in the world that has your exact same perspective, your exact same thoughts, your education, and life experience. All of that cumulatively has made you arrive at this moment in time and no-one else in the world can replicate you. Therefore, you are the only one who can speak up to share your thoughts, opinions, and questions – your uniqueness.

What’s holding you back from projecting confidence in your work situations? What steps can you take right now to start changing that perception? How do you get out of your own way?

Speaking confidently will serve you well in many areas of your career and life in general. It is an excellent skill to start practicing immediately and I encourage you to do so.

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About Author

Marie Herman

Marie Herman CAP-OM, ACS, MOSM operates a successful business, MRH Enterprises LLC (www.mrhenterprises.com), whose services include teaching computer and other classes in-person and via the internet, writing articles, and conducting workshops and other speaking engagements. She can be reached at [email protected]

5 Comments

  1. Phyllis Raynor Surrett on

    Very well said. Excellent points that can be adopted. I’ve been training myself to let go of “I’m sorry” and to genuinely accept a compliment. Just as you say, Marie, recognize the bad habit, and then you’ll be able to build new word skills that propel you forward.

  2. Lori Bodesheimer on

    What a great article about speaking confidently! I particularly appreicated the examples. You explained why a statement is weak then gave examples of how to express ourselves better. Thank you for sharing the link to your article in your newsletter!

  3. Sandy Plarske on

    Great article Marie! The inflection issue when talking is everywhere and it drives me crazy. I wonder how/where that started.

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