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Leadership Through Language

Updated: Dec 5, 2020

It’s not about what you say — it’s about what they hear.

That was the incredibly important message I took away from a Girls Who Invest alumni workshop which focused on Language Strategies for Greater Confidence and Impact. The workshop inspired me to think critically about my own tendencies while communicating and present the takeaways I learned from amazing speaker Patty White to the WLI community.

1. Avoid using weak or negative language. Instead, rephrase what you’re trying to say to use positive language.

One of the most common things women say is “sorry.”

Apologizing is an instinct — second nature — for many women. Bumped into someone? Showed up a couple minutes late to a meeting? Made an error? “Sorry.”

But “sorry” isn’t always the right word to use. Not only does it imply wrongdoing on your part when oftentimes the wrongdoing does not exist, but the emphasis on wrongdoing and blame also depletes your mood and the other party’s mood.

Instead of “sorry,” say “thank you” — “Thank you for waiting for me.” “Thanks for catching my error. I’ll make the update.” “I really appreciate your patience.” It addresses the same event and individuals and conveys the same message, but puts a positive spin on what would’ve otherwise been a downer for both you and the other person. Rather than focusing on your “wrongdoing,” it focuses both parties’ attention on something great the other person did, which can help lift everyone’s spirits.

Weak and negative language doesn’t stop with apologizing. Another form of weak and negative language includes questions that undermine your statement. For example, asking “does that make sense?” or “right?” after presenting a well-reasoned argument can make it sound like you are doubting yourself and raise doubts in others’ minds about the efficacy of your statements and arguments. Instead, asking “did you understand what I was trying to get across?” will get you the same answer (whether the other party understood your message or not) without undermining your credibility.

2. Avoid deflecting compliments.

Patty likened deflecting compliments to receiving a gift from someone and immediately tossing it aside.

Too often, when women are praised for something they did well, they will respond with “It was nothing” or “It was my team.” Instead, try saying “Thank you very much. I worked hard on that,” or “Thank you. What was it that you liked?” It’s important to feel comfortable sitting in the compliments you receive and learning how to respond without deflecting or downplaying your achievement.

3. Avoid “hedging” and using qualifiers.

Hedging is when people use phrases to minimize the impact of their statements and ideas in order to come across as kind or not demanding. Some of these phrases include “I’m no expert,” or “kind of,” “maybe,” or “sort of,” or even starting your statement with “I’d like to” or “I feel.” Instead of weakening your statements with these phrases, drop these qualifiers and hedging statements and say things like “I’m confident that…” “I’m sure” “I envision.” Instead of saying “but these are just my thoughts,” consider saying “I would love to hear your thoughts.”

Changing the impact of your words and your speech won’t happen overnight, but through repeated and cognizant effort to watch what you say, it’s possible for your already great ideas and efforts to garner the consideration and appreciation they deserve!


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