Tough Talk: 6 Ways for Women to Be Confident Communicators

Posted on July 14 2023

Author: Laura Hobbs

Next time you’re in a meeting at the office, listen closely to another woman in the room. What you’ll often hear is a struggle in her choice of words or her tone of voice — an urge to convey an idea while avoiding being misinterpreted as arrogant, pushy, or too assertive.

In Tara Mohr’s Playing Big, Mohr dedicates an entire chapter to empowering women to reclaim ownership of their words, making an eye-opening observation about women’s communication styles, especially in the workplace:

“Most women I know feel great pressure—sometimes conscious, sometimes unconscious—to say what they really want to say, while also adhering to feminine norms of being nice, ever flexible, ever conciliatory, ever calm.

This pressure is showcased by women hedging their ideas, disclaiming their opinions, or upspeaking their voices, all in an effort to reel in any sense of seeming overbearing. These speech patterns are partly due to a linguistic contagion—simply hearing other women speak and adopting the same habits with the notion that they’re appropriate. But perhaps, according to Mohr, the reasoning goes deeper: as women, we’ve been culturally shaped into thinking that women can either be competent or they can be likable—but they cannot be both. So by lessening our perceived competence, we can come across as more likable. Ouch.

But all hope isn’t lost. It’s time for us to take our communication off autopilot and actively listen to the ways we’re subtly undermining ourselves, shading our words with subordination and an inexplicable lack of confidence. Inspired by several of Mohr’s suggestions, as well as a few I’ve learned over the years, here are six ways women can become more confident communicators.

Take your time.

Have you ever been in a conversation or a meeting with someone who peppers her speech with “ums,” “likes,” and “y’knows,” or who interrupts her own train of thought with digressions and asides? When we feel nervous or unsure about ourselves, it’s often reflected in our speech with rushed sentences, frenetic trains of thought, and unnecessary words to fill the space. If you’re nervous, take your time; avoid piling statements or words on top of each other by pausing to take a breath and collect your thoughts. There’s nothing wrong with a pause.

But are we hardwired to rush? Perhaps. A recent linguistic theory hypothesizes that a woman is more likely to be interrupted when she pauses, so she develops the habit of rushing her words and filling the spaces to avoid the likelihood of interruption. Whether or not this theory has any weight, if you’re ever interrupted during a pause, don’t hesitate to politely note you’re not finished speaking.

Avoid hedging.

“Just,” “kind of,” “almost,” “sort of”—when we make a declarative statement or want to ask a forward question, or when we’re uncomfortable asserting our certainty, we tend to soften the blow. By diminishing our statements and questions, we assure our listener that we have no aggressive intentions, often to the point of sounding vaguely apologetic or conciliatory, as if we’re inconveniencing our listener. Take this request:

“I’m just curious when your report’s going to be done. I’m a little worried that we won’t have it for the 10:00 meeting. It’s kind of important to have it finished. I almost think you may want to ask Jane for help.”

Now, take out the hedging words:

“When’s your report going to be done? I’m worried we won’t have it for the 10:00 meeting. It’s important to have it finished. Do you need to ask Jane for help?”

Notice how the message changes from vaguely apologetic to direct, and is still well within the boundaries of courtesy and good manners.

Avoid upspeak.

You’ve no doubt heard it: the lifted pitch at the end of a statement, audibly veiling its message as tentative, undecided, or questioning. Upspeak (also known as “uptalk”) is the latest linguistic hot topic to sweep female (and some male) speech patterns, often being labeled as juvenile, Valley Girl, or outright unprofessional. The use of upspeak is heavily researched and deeply theorized. For speakers, it’s a way to make a statement without committing to authority. And for listeners, it indicates that the speaker is seeking affirmation, or appears unsure of the relevance and value of what she’s saying. Either way, it’s another method of undermining our authority on a topic, or discounting the validity of what we’re trying to say—and it’s definitely a habit to recognize and avoid.

Claim coherence.

Of course, we want our listener to understand what we’re saying. The real question is: do we understand what we’re saying? “Did that make sense?”, while a good-intentioned question, is a way for us to check in with our listener and make sure we’re being understood. But according to Mohr, research shows that women who use these self-questioning check-ins come across as less confident, less knowledgeable, and less influential on a topic. You can still keep your good intentions of a check-in, but try reframing your question to be about the listener: “How do you feel about that?”, “Do you have any questions?”, or “What are your thoughts?” are good alternatives.

Avoid unnecessary apology.

Listen closely to yourself for an entire day: do you have a “sorry” habit? “Sorry” has become an involuntary additive to many women’s speech patterns. We unconsciously apologize for having something to say, taking up space, and asking questions—none of which merit any sort of apology. Of course, there are times when a sincere “sorry” is appropriate and should be delivered—but don’t apologize for nonsensical reasons or use “sorry” as a default intro before speaking up.

Don’t disclaim your opinion

“This may be way off, but…” “I’m no expert, but…” “I’m just thinking out loud, here…” Ever prefaced your opinion with one of these disclaimers? When we want to convey thoughts that haven’t fully congealed yet, we often introduce the idea or opinion with a disclaimer. These disclaimers automatically diminish whatever follows, if not set it up to be incompetent or outright wrong. With a simple tweak in our approach, we can turn a dismissive qualifier into a simple, neutral introduction like, “Here’s what I’m thinking” or “Here are my thoughts on this.”

If you know you’ve fallen prey to any of these undermining habits (Hi, join the club!), there are several ways you can change the way you communicate. Mohr suggests focusing on one habit at a time. Pick the one you want to get rid of first and start there, weeding them out one by one. She also suggests picking a speech buddy—a friend or colleague you can team up with to keep each other in check and accountable. And while it may sound unbearable at first, Mohr also suggests recording yourself; there’s no replacement for hearing (or seeing!) your undermining habits firsthand. Most important, though, is to remain yourself; you’re not trying to change your personality; you’re simply tweaking the way your (valid, novel, and well-formed) messages are received by your listeners.