This article was originally published on the Forbes blog.
I hear it all the time: “Why do you have to be so aggressive? Why can’t you just be like one of us?” No matter where you are in your career, you may have experienced this kind of reaction from someone. If you speak up, you’re too assertive. If you don’t speak up, you may feel as though you’re not being heard. You’re not alone; this happens to many of us. What should you do instead? How can you find the right balance? Try these four recommendations:
1. Ask yourself if you are using weak language and why.
“I think this is a good idea,” or “I believe this could add some value” are weak statements. We are all guilty of using weak language at times, but this practice undermines our effectiveness. It plants seeds of doubt in your audience’s mind. So, it’s important to identify the situations where you tend to use weak language. What is your role? Are there certain colleagues, clients or customers who put you on edge?
Once you are aware, it’s time to prepare and anticipate the objections you may receive in those situations. How will you start the conversation? What is the first sentence you will say? Make sure you use powerful leadership language such as:
• “I know”
• “I’m convinced”
• “Given my experience”
• “I recommend”
• “I suggest”
And delete phrases and words like:
• “I believe”
• “I think”
• “Kind of”
Now, there is one exception. When you are brainstorming or problem-solving, it is OK to use the words “I believe” or “I think.” However, when you are influencing others with your ideas, perspective and experience, it’s more effective to say something like “I am convinced” or “I know this can work.”
2. Pause and rewind, if necessary.
Know you can always rewind. If you hear words coming out of your mouth that aren’t powerful, stop and start over. You can always say, “Hold on. Let me rephrase that. What I meant to say was, I know this is a good idea.” This rewind tactic is always at your disposal.
When you are in reactive mode, you are driven by the amygdala part of the brain which controls your instincts to flight, fight or freeze. This peaks in a difficult conversation or when you are in conflict. Pausing drives you into the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is better suited to process the situation and circumstances under stress. This prefrontal cortex governs a variety of executive functions, including reasoning, empathy and managing your emotional reactions. The pause allows you to be deliberate in your word choice, so you speak powerfully. When you are 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 situation and individuals.
• Inhale for four seconds, hold for two seconds, exhale for four seconds.
• 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 primitive amygdala part of the brain to the “modern” prefrontal cortex.
3. Remember other people are listening.
You have an opportunity to shape the next generation of leaders, especially the female leaders coming up through the ranks behind you. Pay attention to how you influence 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 approach her/him afterward. 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 proposing your idea. Use words like, ‘I know,’ ‘I’m convinced,’ ‘I am confident,’ ‘Given my experience,’ ‘I recommend, etc.’”
4. Question colleagues who criticize women for being too aggressive, assertive or bossy.
Be upfront and ask, “What makes you say they are being too aggressive? What specific words made you feel that way? What did you hear?” or “What did she say that made you feel that way?” Reply with your own impressions, using strong leadership language: “She was asserting her point given her experience working with the client.”
Both men and women can advocate for this shift in language by speaking up. Speak up when you hear a colleague — no matter their title or gender — speak of 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?
Who do you trust who you can partner with right now to help you adjust your language? Consider a trusted colleague, mentor, friend or even someone with whom you don’t work. What words are you going to delete from your vocabulary and what words will you start using today?