How women undermine themselves at work with self-doubting language

We spoke with a women's leadership expert about the language patterns and affectations that undermine us in the workplace.

Women talk a lot. A LOT. But are we really paying attention to what we are saying? Are we aware that we could be undermining ourselves by using certain self-doubting language a lot and certain voice affectations?

We talked with Tara Sophia Mohr, an expert on women’s leadership and well-being. Her work helps women play bigger in their work and in their lives.

With an MBA from Stanford University and her undergraduate degree in English literature from Yale, Tara takes a unique approach that blends inner work with practical skills training, and weaves together both intellectual rigor and intuitive wisdom. She is the creator of the global Playing Big leadership program for women and the co-creator of two anthologies of contemporary women’s writings, The Women’s Seder Sourcebook and The Women’s Passover Companion.

We asked her about the words that have the potential to really damage a woman’s career.

“Women are unconsciously doing all these things all the time. We are just picking up language patterns from other women. It’s very contagious. And we use throw in these words, very subtlely, because we know the more powerful and confident we come across the more scary it is. We then have more potential to be criticized and opposed. We use these words to make us seem smaller and less visible. They keep us in a smaller space.”

One word Tara specifically focuses on is the word “just.”

“I just want to add something.”

“I just have a question.”

“I just think that we are going about this the wrong way.”

“It is the connotation of that specific word that is damaging,” she said.  What “just” does is it makes it sound like we are in conflict with ourselves. If you say, “I just want to take a minute,” it is because you are worried you are taking up too much of this person’s time.

Another bad one is when we say, “Actually.” Like, “Actually, I have a question,” It is as if we can’t believe that we could have possibly formulated a question in our tiny little female brains. It is almost as if you you are saying, “Believe it or not, but I do have a question. I was as surprised as you were!”

In addition to language, you also have to worry about the inflection of your voice. Women tend to go up at the end of the sentences as if they are asking a question. “Questioning sounds a lot less powerful,” she said.

Tara said women also tend to talk a lot faster than men. Not only because we have a lot more to say sometimes (about 13,000 words more per day) but we also do this because we are afraid we are going to be interrupted. Tara said women are interrupted more frequently than men so this is a coping strategy. But when we talk fast we can ramble. “Men are better at speaking slowly and putting the period at the end of a pause. It makes them sound more confident,” she said.

Tara says these are all things we should try to work on but if you try to attack them all at once you will be completely overwhelmed. “It is too much to be conscious of it all the time. Focus on one for a few weeks and you will start to see a difference. It is really a process of becoming more conscious. Don’t beat yourself up about changing the behavior just be conscious.”

She noted it’s a great idea for professional women to work with a colleague buddy on helping you improve your speaking skills. Just having someone listen to you speak will make you so much more aware of what is really coming out of your mouth.