Why women need to communicate more assertively at work - and how

Photo: iStock

Communicating confidently and effectively in the workplace can be a challenging experience when all too often a woman’s voice is drowned out, overridden, or ignored. This can have serious consequences for women’s ability to contribute to meetings, to drive the strategic agenda of the business, and to ascend to leadership positions within the organisation. We see this represented in Australia where just 25% of leadership positions are held by women. Speaking with confidence and conviction, being assertive and engaging, building networks and developing internal advocates are all strategies women will be familiar with – but what is just as important as knowing what to say or do, is knowing what not to say or do.

Below are 5 simple but powerful communication behaviours to avoid if you want to communicate your knowledge and expertise effectively and assertively in the workplace.

Devaluing language

Use of devaluing language likely stems from a culture and an environment that mandates female modesty, according to a Montana State University paper from Jessi L. Smith. The research showed that while the participants questioned were happy to promote a friend’s achievement, they were very reluctant to talk positively of their own achievements. Furthermore, women tend to downplay their abilities, showing decreased confidence and increased anxiety while achieving the same, or better results than male counterparts. These are some examples of devaluing language that you might be using every day whilst not even being aware of it:

“I just want to talk to you about…”
Sorry for bothering you but can I…”
“I guess what I’m saying is…”
“What this basically means is…”

It’s important to realise that this type of language portrays a lack of self-confidence as it positions your communication as an interruption instead of a valuable contribution, or suggests approval seeking even before making your point. As a quick exercise try removing these words from of your vocabulary, particularly “just” and “sorry” which are key offenders. Another major word to avoid is “think”. Instead of saying “What I think is…”, replace it with phrases like “What I believe is…”, “What I know is that…”, or “I’m confident that…”. Be direct, be clear and be sure of yourself.

Submissive body language

Being assertive isn’t just about verbal language. Your body language can just as easily project a lack of confidence. Conversely it can be equally used to portray yourself as a capable and confident leader. A recent article from Dr Melissa J. Williams of the Wall Street Journal notes that their research showed that while women were treated disparagingly for verbal assertiveness, like negotiating for a salary increase, women had great success with non-verbal assertiveness using things like bodily stances and physical proximity.

A common example that comes to mind is crossing your legs when you’re speaking to others and when you’re being spoken to. This behaviour reduces your physical presence and assertiveness and looks apologetic, as if to say you don’t believe you have permission to occupy your own space. Instead, stand proudly in your space by placing your feet shoulder width apart, or leaning on one leg if that’s more comfortable. Dr Williams adds that “women should feel free to drape their arm over the adjacent chair or touch a colleague’s arm when speaking…and that they shouldn’t hesitate to speak first, or interrupt if necessary”.

Another common example is holding your hands in the “fig-leaf” position, i.e. down, low and clasped. This makes women look timid and unsure of themselves, particularly when they’re receiving questions. Instead, use what we’d refer to as a comfortable ‘neutral” position’, i.e. a place for your hands when they’re not gesturing. Ideally this ‘neutral’ position should be where your hands are waist height or above with the hands held or clasped loosely and comfortably.

Remember that actions often speak louder than words and how you use your body can speak volumes. So use your body language to communicate your confidence and capability.

Photo: iStock

Winning every point at all costs

Whilst we discuss assertiveness and confidence, it’s important to not forget the strategic advantage of compromise. The old adage “you don’t need to win all the battles to win the war” is a great one to commit to memory. Great leaders, no matter their gender, know the importance of compromising. It isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s one of maturity. Choose your battles carefully, and favour the long game over short term wins. In essence, being assertive isn’t about winning points. It’s often about being confident enough to compromise in order to negotiate a resolution to a situation.

Using collective language

All too often women resort to using collective language like “we” or “ours”, when it was really a personal achievement. This point is moot for when it is, in fact, a joint/team effort. The issue is when women use this verbiage in place of promoting their effort, as if they’re saying “I’m embarrassed to say ‘I’ or ‘my’. As you can imagine, the reluctance to take ownership for your praise worthy work is a gift of diminishing returns, where you’re likely to not receive the recognition and credit you deserve.

Professor Jessi L. Smith and Meghan Huntoon’s paper from Montana State University we mentioned earlier explains that the reason for this may be that “we live in a society where cultural gender norms are powerful and embedded in our history”, and “when women had an alternative explanation for why they may be feeling uncomfortable [like taking responsibility for good work] the awkwardness they felt from violating the modesty norm…was diverted”. In other words, women find it easy to “blame” others for their good work, because owning their success feels unnatural.

It’s important to note here, that the onus of resolving this issue isn’t with women alone – the workplace environment has to embody gender equality, but instead of reinforcing the “norm” that dictates you should stay quiet and humble, challenge it and take ownership of your hard work when it’s your personal achievement.

A word on workplace equality

Creating a workplace that is equity incarnate has and will continue to be a challenge. These communication tips will improve how you portray your confidence and assertiveness by addressing the small, often subconscious things that women do every day that can significantly reduce their standing and respect in the workplace. Senior female leaders have learnt over many years how to avoid these pitfalls. So remove the ‘justs’ and stop apologising before you speak, increase your physical presence and own your personal space, strategically compromise in negotiations and conflicts, and celebrate your hard work and successes, because you are the vehicle of your success, and it’s about time there was more than 25% of leadership roles occupied by women.

Belinda Huckle is the Managing Director of secondnature International, a business presentation and pitching skills coaching consultancy based in the UK and Australia.

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