Editor’s Note: This article is one of the top 10 most uncomfortable work situations of 2015. See the full list here.
Getting your message across clearly at work can be hard enough without overanalyzing how your tone will be perceived, yet that’s a position that many women find themselves in.
This week, leadership coach Lolly Daskal helps a reader figure out how she can say what she means and stop worrying about how she sounds.
I have a problem that I suspect a lot of other women have, too. No matter what the situation—on the phone with a client, in meetings, and even in one-on-ones with my direct reports or emails with my kid’s teacher—I’m super conscious of my tone. I want everyone to like me and I’m fearful of being seen as bitchy or demanding.
I know this is a double standard, and I’m sure men don’t waste their time worrying about their tone, but I can’t help it. I find myself second-guessing what I’m about to say and often searching for a “softer” way to say it, which I’m afraid just makes me sound wishy-washy. For example, instead of saying something like, “ The deadline for this is Tuesday morning,” I’ll hear myself saying, “It would be really great if you could get this in at some point on Tuesday, if it’s not too much trouble. I really appreciate your help.”
Any advice for how I can get my point across without so much pussyfooting? Should I just get over it and ask for what I want?
We can all benefit from learning how to be better communicators, especially when we have the tendency to pussyfoot in our communication.
A pussyfooter is a passive communicator—someone who is afraid of being assertive because they fear coming across as arrogant. And that is where the problem lies.
The truth is that assertive communication is not arrogant. If you are mindful of the difference, you can change not only the way you speak but also the way you communicate. Once you understand what you do and why you do it, you can change your mind-set.
Here are some insights about becoming a better communicator without being at either extreme of passivity or arrogance.
Understand the difference between arrogant and assertive. Assertiveness is simply standing up for your own thoughts and needs; arrogance is aggressive. A passive person might see a direct, open style of assertive communication as arrogant since it’s different from their own style, but it’s really just a question of focus.
Stay on the right side of assertiveness. Keep your communication assertive without hurting and belittling others, and state what you want and why without threatening. It’s about communicating honestly, directly, and concisely.
Passivity doesn’t work. When you find yourself pussyfooting around and not getting what you need, ask yourself whether you’re feeling intimidated or timid, and why. Remind yourself that it’s appropriate to communicate assertively.
Use I statements. If you’re concerned about your tone becoming arrogant, fall back on the old trick of using I statements. Statements that focus on what you are feeling, thinking, or experiencing communicate your needs in a way that’s clear and concise without blaming or involving others. For example you can say:
“I prefer ___.”
“I don’t want to ___.”
“I feel ___ when ___.”
“ I need ___.”
Avoid words like should and ought. They focus on others’ behavior, making people feel defensive, and they come across as demanding and aggressive. They can create barriers to communication. For example, instead of “You should remember to be on time for meetings,” say “It is important that you be punctual.” It’s still assertive, but less likely to lead to defensiveness.
Pay attention to your voice. You don’t want to use a tone that makes people uncomfortable. Don’t raise your voice; speak with authority but sound inviting, inclusive, and determined. Sound calm and maintain the tone of a leader.
Get feedback. If you are still having trouble in your communication, ask for help—hire a coach or take a class. Or ask for feedback and advice from a partner, friend, or mentor. Describe what you want to achieve and be specific about which behavior you want to change.
Practice daily. Communicating assertively is a skill you can develop as you would any other, with daily practice until it becomes a habit. This is especially true for women, who often face social and cultural pressure to refrain from using assertive behaviors and communication. Start by practicing in low-stakes situations and work up from there.
To change your communication patterns, start by building your awareness. Then give yourself some new tools and practice them as widely as possible. Good luck!
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