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How does language hold you back in the workplace?

Woman covering her mouth with her hands

I was delivering an Introduction to Good Girl Conditioning workshop in Oxford last week and one thing we talked about in depth was the fact that we undermine ourselves constantly with the language we use.

We talked about this being a part of the Good Girl Double Bind - the ways that we work to make ourselves "acceptable" in the workplace - the tightrope balance we do of likability and credibility. Trying not to be "too much" and put people off.

When we use minimising language, we're putting a lid on our brilliance without even realising it. In this blog, we're diving deep into those sneaky language habits that can undermine our authority and confidence, and we're going to explore how to toss them overboard, empowering you to amplify the full power of your voice.

Identifying minimising language

First things first, let's uncover those sneaky habits we might not even be aware of:

1. Apologies - women apologise more than men. How are we directly and indirectly apologising in our day to day interactions? Using"I'm sorry to bother you" or "I apologise for taking up your time" are just a couple of examples of how women often find themselves apologising in their day-to-day interactions.

But it's not just the direct apologies that add up; it's also the indirect ones, like prefacing our questions with "Sorry, but..." or downplaying our contributions with phrases like "I'm not sure if this is relevant, but..." These subtle apologies can chip away at our confidence and reinforce the idea that our voices aren't as valuable as others'.

2. Hedges - linguistic devices used to soften the impact of a statement or to indicate uncertainty. When we use phrases like "I think maybe", "Perhaps we could", or "It might be", we're essentially hedging our bets. We're not fully committing to a position or idea, and we're leaving room for doubt.

For example, imagine you're in a meeting discussing a new project, and someone suggests a course of action. If you respond with, "I think maybe we could consider that approach," you're not fully endorsing the idea. Instead, you're expressing a tentative opinion, which can undermine the confidence and assertiveness of your statement.

Similarly, phrases like "Perhaps we could" or "It might be" suggest that you're not entirely sure about the proposal or suggestion being made. This can weaken the impact of your contribution and make it easier for others to dismiss your ideas.

Hedges rob our statements of their assertiveness by introducing doubt and uncertainty. They can make us appear indecisive or lacking in confidence, even if that's not our intention.

3. Tag questions - those "little" questions are short questions added to the end of a statement, often seeking agreement or confirmation from the listener. For example, "It's a beautiful day, isn't it?" or "You agree with me, right?"

These questions serve to soften the statement and invite the listener to participate in the conversation actively. However, when used excessively or inappropriately, tag questions can have unintended consequences, especially in professional or assertive contexts.

Using tag questions makes us look like we're seeking validation or approval from others, diminishing our authority and inviting doubt . They can indicate a lack of confidence in our own opinions or decisions as we may come across as unsure or indecisive, undermining our credibility and authority in the eyes of others.

4. Diminutives - words or phrases that indicate smallness, cuteness, or lesser importance. Do you ever catch yourself using terms like "little task" or "tiny favour"? When we use diminutives we inadvertently downplay the importance or significance of what we're asking for or offering.

By describing something as "little" or "tiny," we imply that it's not particularly important or significant. For example, saying "It's just a little task" suggests that the task is minor or inconsequential, even if it's not.

Diminutives can also minimise the impact or effort required for a task or favour. For instance, describing a task as a "tiny favour" might make it seem like it's no trouble at all, even if it requires significant time or effort.

Also, using diminutives can understate the importance or value of what we're asking for or offering. For instance, saying "It's just a small thing" might make it seem like our contribution or request isn't as significant as it is.

5. Softening statements - involve using language that diminishes the impact or importance of what we're about to say. When we start our suggestions with phrases like "I just have a small suggestion" or "This might sound silly, but...", we're essentially apologising for our awesome ideas before we've even flipping shared them!

By prefacing our ideas with phrases like "I'm not sure if this is relevant, but" we're downplaying the importance or validity of our own contributions. This can signal to others that we lack confidence in our ideas, making it easier for them to dismiss or ignore them.

Softening statements can also invite skepticism or doubt from others. When we suggest that our ideas might sound silly or insignificant, we're essentially giving others permission to question or reject them without fully considering their merits.

They can also can undermine our authority and credibility as communicators. When we apologise for our ideas before even sharing them, we're signalling to others that we're not fully confident in our own expertise or judgment, making it harder for them to trust or respect our contributions.

6. Qualifiers - words or phrases that weaken the impact of a statement by expressing doubt or uncertainty. When we use qualifiers like "I'm not an expert, but..." or "I could be wrong, but...", we're essentially hedging our bets and indicating that we're not fully confident in what we're about to say.

Qualifiers signal to the listener that the speaker is uncertain or hesitant about the validity of their statement. By prefacing a statement with phrases like "I'm not entirely sure, but" the speaker is essentially apologising for their lack of expertise and preemptively downplaying the importance or accuracy of what they're about to say.

When we use qualifiers, we're implicitly acknowledging that we're not fully confident in our assertions. This can diminish the impact and credibility of our statements, making it easier for others to dismiss or ignore them.

Qualifiers can also undermine the speaker's authority and credibility. By suggesting that they may not be fully informed or correct, the speaker is essentially conceding ground before the conversation has even begun, making it harder for them to command respect and authority in their interactions.

The impact of minimising language

These little language habits don't just affect how others see us; they mess with our own self-confidence too! By using them, we're basically selling ourselves short and missing out on opportunities to shine like the communication stars we are.

1. Raise awareness - start paying attention to your speech and writing patterns. Awareness is the first step toward change! Make a list of all the words you want to kick out of your vocabulary. Here's mine:

  • "Sorry, but"

  • "Actually"

  • "Just"

  • "Kind of"

  • "Almost"

  • "A little bit"

  • "Does that make sense?" (This one!!)

2. Practice assertive communication - swap those doubtful phrases for more direct and confident ones.

Here are some examples of how to practice assertive communication by swapping doubtful phrases for more direct and confident ones:

  • Instead of saying: "I think maybe we should consider..." s ay "I propose that we consider..."

  • Instead of: "I'm not sure if this is relevant, but..." s ay "This is relevant because..."

  • Instead of: "I guess we could try..." say "Let's try..."

  • Instead of: "It might be a good idea to..." s ay "We should..."

  • Instead of: "I'm sorry to bother you, but..." s ay "I need your input on..."

  • Instead of: "I'm not sure if I'm making sense, but..." Say: "Let me clarify..."

  • Instead of: "Maybe we could think about..." say "Let's consider..."

  • Instead of: "I just have a small suggestion..." s ay "I suggest..."

  • Instead of: "This might sound silly, but..." s ay "I believe..."

  • Instead of: "I could be wrong, but..." say "I am confident that..."

  • Instead of: "Does that make sense" say "Is there anything you'd like me to clarify?"

By making these simple adjustments, we can communicate our ideas more confidently and assertively, ensuring that our voices are heard and respected in every interaction.

3. Seek accountability - don't be afraid to ask for accountability from trusted peers or mentors. Let them know you're working on your use of language and to let you know when they notice you've said or written one of your 'banned' words. Sometimes an outside perspective can help keep us on track. Better still, partner up with someone you work closely with this and try this work together!

Want to explore this further?

Minimising language habits might be pervasive, but they're not invincible. By recognising and addressing these linguistic tendencies, we can project greater confidence and authority in all aspects of our lives.

If you want to know more about all the ways Good Girl Conditioning holds us back and explore assertive communication for women at work, sign up to one of my public workshops here. Or get in touch to book me to do an in-house workshop in your organisation -

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