There’s been a lot of talk recently about how women communicate. Apps like the Just Not Sorry Chrome extension, articles like this one, and this on-point Amy Schumer skit have made it clear that what a woman says affects how she's seen.
At the risk of discouraging women from speaking altogether out of fear of saying the “wrong” thing, I’d like to add one more “Don’t” to the list:
“In my opinion.”
In normal conversation? Go for it. Make your opinion known and don’t let anyone stop you. Seriously, the more opinionated women in this world, the better.
But in a professional setting? Proceed with caution, or risk undermining your credibility. Believe me, I’ve learned this the hard way.
Opinion vs. Experience
It happened back when I worked in corporate communications for a Fortune 50 company. I was in a meeting with one of the company presidents-- you know, one of those bigwig types with politician hair and pleated pants who starts his group emails with, “Gents,...”
We were discussing the roll-out of his new business strategy and he wanted my recommendation on how to communicate the change to his team.
Admittedly, I was intimidated by his status. There was a lot of, “Well, in my opinion, you could…” and “If you agree, I think we should…” until finally he banged his fist on the table in frustration and yelled, “Damn it, Elissa, you’re the communications expert. Just tell me what to say!”
That’s when I got it.
Your client wants you to be the expert.
You are not being paid for your opinion, you are not being paid to stroke their ego, you are not being paid to be polite. You are being paid for your expertise.
So when you're asked for your expertise, how do you respond?
Consider the following:
“In my opinion, we should schedule three blog posts a week,” vs. “In my experience, scheduling three blog posts a week gets the most engagement.”
Which sounds stronger? Which is less likely to be challenged? Which makes the speaker sound more like an expert and instills more confidence in the person receiving the recommendation?
“I’m just trying to be polite.”
Women are often afraid of their own expertise. And I don't blame them.
A lifetime of being socialized not to be “bossy” or “pushy” has made us believe that the polite thing to do is give people an opportunity to ignore what we say.
We feel more comfortable when we make it easier to disagree with us.
But this approach doesn’t help anyone.
We not only do ourselves a disservice when we present our expertise as an opinion, but we also do a disservice to the people we are trying to help.
They want to have confidence in us. They want to know they are working with a professional they can trust. And when they're paying us for our expertise, they want us to tell them what to do.
Nobody benefits when you make yourself ignorable.
Respect is earned.
In an ideal world, you'd never have to justify your recommendation. You could just say, "We should do X," and no one would question it. But since that's not always the case, your justification should strengthen what you have to say, not weaken it.
Believe me, if my experience working in a male-dominated corporate environment taught me one thing, it’s this: the only way to get respect is to earn it.
And the only way to earn respect is to make yourself heard.
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