I hear it all the time, “Why do you have to be so aggressive? Why can’t you just be like one of us?” 

Doesn’t that make you want to clench your jaw and fists when you hear those words? What does that even mean?

No matter where you are in your career, whether you are just starting out, you are midway through managing several people, or you are about to enter the C-suite, you probably have experienced this kind of reaction from someone over the course of your career. 

Since you’re reading this, I know you are focused on excelling at what you do. You’ve received positive feedback. You’ve risen through the ranks. You have had an impact on your team, your customers, and your organization. And yet, you feel as though you’re not being heard. Or you’re not communicating as effectively as you could. You’re not alone, this happens to so many of us. 

The challenge is to learn how to speak the way you want to be heard. The first step is to recognize the moment you’re not leading effectively. How do you know when this happens? Pay attention to those moments you hear yourself using weak language. 

We are all guilty of this. The practice of using weak language undermines our effectiveness. We hesitate when we say things like, “I think this is a good idea.” Or maybe, “I believe that this could add some value.” These are ineffective statements that plant seeds of doubt in your audience’s mind.

Try these four steps to remove weak leadership language from your everyday communication and start using stronger leadership language today:


1. Be aware of why you are using weak language.

  • Recognize who is in the room and your relationship with them.
  • Understand the circumstances of the meeting or conversation.
  • Be clear on the situation and your role in it.

Recognize the situations, circumstances, and individuals, where you tend to use weak language. Are there certain colleagues, clients, or customers who put you on edge? It’s normal and happens to most of us. Anticipate objections. Prepare ahead of time. You don’t need to script it all out, rather list a few bullet points to guide you in your conversation. How are you going to start the conversation? Use powerful leadership language such as:

  • “I know…”
  • “I am confident…”
  • “I’m convinced…”
  • “I recommend…”
  • “Given my experience…”

And delete:

  • “Maybe…”
  • “I believe…”
  • “I think…”

There is one exception to this rule. When you are brainstorming, it is ok to use the words “I believe…” or “I think…” This will continue the idea generation. When you are influencing and persuading others with your ideas, perspective, and experience, do not use the words, “I think…” and “I believe…” because it stifles engaging, collaborative brainstorming.


2. Use pauses and rewinds as needed when you communicate.

Keep in mind you can always rewind. If you hear the words coming out of your mouth which aren’t powerful, stop and rephrase. You can always say, “Hold on one second, let me rephrase that. What I meant to say was, I know this is a good idea.” Those sentences and the rewind tactic are always at your disposal. 

When you pause, and rethink how and what you said, you move away from being in reactive mode. When you are in a reactive mode, you are driven by the amygdala part of the brain which controls your instincts to flight, fight, or freeze. You are operating with this part of the brain during a difficult conversation or when you are in conflict. The amygdala is the

most primitive part of the brain, developed when our focus was to quickly determine life-threatening situations. 

Pausing allows you to use the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is better suited to process the situation and circumstances under stress. This part of the brain hosts a variety of executive functions, including reasoning, empathy, and focus to manage your emotional reactions. When you are being pushed or feel triggered it can be a challenge to pause. I recommend trying one or more of these tactics:

  • Be present and focus on the sights and smells around you.
  • Inhale for the count of four, hold for the count of two, exhale for the count of four.
  • Think about the impact your pause will have on others around you, and most importantly, on your own mindset and confidence.
  • Envision moving from the amygdala part of the brain to the prefrontal cortex.

This pause allows you to be deliberate in your word choice, so you speak with more power.


3. Remember: other people are listening.

You have an opportunity to shape the next generation of leaders, especially the female leaders coming up behind you. Pay attention to how you influence them and encourage them to use strong leadership language.

You may notice in a meeting that someone is undermining herself/himself. Don’t point it out in the moment, but rather approach her/him afterwards. Point out the opportunity where (s)he can do things even better. You may say something like, ‘You made a great case. Next time I recommend you pay attention to your language choice when you are proposing your idea.’ Use some of the words we talked about, such as I know. I’m convinced. I am confident. Given my experience. I recommend.


4. Question colleagues who criticize someone for being too aggressive, assertive, or ‘bossy’.

Ask them:

  • “What makes you believe they are being too aggressive?
  • “What specific words?” 
  • “What did you hear?”
  • “What did she say that made you feel that way?”

Reply with your own impressions, using strong leadership language: ‘I found that she was asserting her point and her experience working with that client.’ 

Sheryl Sandberg has been campaigning for years to eliminate this language, starting with little girls in the classroom and on the playground. Rather than calling her bossy, instead praise her for her leadership skills. Can you imagine the shift in mindset if at a young age, girls are encouraged and praised for their leadership potential rather than quieted? It’s no different in the workplace. 

Men, as well as women, can advocate for this shift in language by speaking up. Speak up when you hear a colleague, no matter their title and gender, speak about a female colleague as bossy or too assertive, and a male colleague as taking charge. Question what you hear. Women have a smaller amplitude to play in before they hit the bossy levels. Men have a larger amplitude to display their assertiveness, without receiving criticism. How can your female colleagues take command?

Yes, some people, of any gender, may need to approach situations, circumstances, and people in a more tempered manner. We all need to reach our audience by speaking to them in their own language. From my perspective, this is one of the most important leadership skills to influence those around you. In some instances, your assertiveness style is a gentle approach: dropping suggestions to bring people on board. And at other times, your assertiveness style: speaking in a declarative manner is needed to influence those around you.

I started my career working in the development office at Harvard University. This meant fundraising, handshaking, and yes, even tasting my first real (read: expensive) bottle of wine. Our main audience was global dignitaries in business, politics, and wealth, so we focused on relationship building. Millions of dollars were at risk if we did not speak to our audience in their own language style. There were times we needed to hold our ground for the interest of the University. Some may say being too aggressive, assertive, or bossy would be a detriment. Instead, I observed a take command stance. Our research, our relationship development, and continually asking questions allowed us to find the right balance of authority and humility. Raising hundreds of millions of dollars for the University was a result of this influence.

Who do you trust who you can partner with right now to help you adjust your language? Consider a trusted colleague, mentor, or friend. If you’re struggling with knowing how to use strong leadership language and create the impact you want for your organization, go to startwithjulie.com. We’ll connect for a call, chat about where you are in your career and organization, and how I can help you take a big step forward with your leadership impact. This is my superpower. I excel at helping people understand and recognize the weak language they’re using, to stop undermining themselves.