Tara Mohr’s Playing Big is one of my favorite books to have come out recently on the topic of women and leadership. The chapter on powerful communication alone is worth the price of the book. What she says about diminishing language can make a compelling difference in the potential influence your words have on the world. Words like “just” or “actually,” disclaimers like “I’ll only take a bit of your time” or “I’m just thinking off the top of my head,” using uptalk and costume questions when you really want to make a statement can all undermine your ideas.
To learn more about Tara Mohr’s thoughts on diminishing language, this article is a good place to start. In it, she says,
“I keep meeting brilliant women like you, with powerful ideas to contribute, important businesses and organizations to build, provocative questions to share. But so often, the way they communicate fails to command power. They equivocate, apologize, and look away as they speak.
“I do this too. We are subtly undermining ourselves with their words. As a result, our ideas aren’t having the impact they could.”
After reading Playing Big, I reflected on the diminishing words and phrases I used the most frequently. I regularly started emails with “just”, as in “I just wanted to ask,” when I was asking a question or making a request of my colleagues. In meetings, I regularly used disclaimers like “I’m just thinking off the top of my head” in relation to my ideas. In class, I asked my students “does that make sense?” pretty much every time I gave tutorials on art techniques.
I immediately wanted to incorporate the concepts of diminishing language into my leadership curriculum so that I could help my students become more powerful communicators at an early age, and also so that I could practice changing my own speech patterns into something more assertive and direct.
I wrote up a lesson plan and started to implement it within a few weeks. I wasn’t sure whether the topic would go over the heads of ten and eleven year olds, so I was surprised by the girls’ reactions on the first day of our initial discussion. My students immediately knew what I was talking about when I described each type of diminishing language and they were eager to give examples of instances when they or other girls and women used these words and phrases.
My students then worked in groups to plan skits to teach about diminishing language and their opposite, what we called Power Words, to the rest of the student body at an assembly. Their enthusiasm to tackle this subject and to make a difference for other girls and women was inspirational.
How to Change Your Speech
If fifth graders can practice communicating with more strength, then you can as well. How can you change your speech? It starts with an awareness of the words and phrases you choose to say in order to approach communication with a more mindful attitude. Recognition of what you are saying and how your words come across to others can be a powerful shift, although not necessarily a pleasant one.
1. Brainstorm Alternate Phrases
Tara Mohr goes into depth on powerful words and phrases that can be substituted in for diminishing language. On the most basic level, the first step is to eliminate diminishing words from your vocabulary. This can seem like a huge challenge if diminishing language is currently part of your daily speech, but it can be accomplished with practice.
One of the first things you can do to get yourself out of the habit of using diminishing language is to brainstorm things you can say in moments where you catch yourself using words like “sorry” or “does that make sense?” Write a list of assertive phrases that you can use in exchange for more undermining ones. Keep adding to this list as you start to practice in your daily conversations.
2. Monitor Your Language
Catch yourself when you use diminishing language. I find myself interrupting my words when I say “just,” to add in “not just.” I then start over with the more powerful version of the sentence. My students got into a habit of saying “Sorry—I mean, thank you!”
I tend to use disclaimers when I’m sorting out my thoughts and feel unconfident in their validity. To counter this, I started to become much more mindful about how my insecurities come across in my speech. Now, when I start or end a sentence with a disclaimer like “I’m not sure if that’s true” or “that was just my first thought”, I can usually catch myself in the act. I say out loud, “I know that was a disclaimer” and then repeat myself without it or follow up with “ignore the disclaimer.”
3. Get an Accountability Partner
Finding someone you can ask to call you out on your use of diminishing language can help to change your speech as well. Make a plan on what you’ll tell each other in the moment, and try to present the reminder in a constructive light instead of a punitive one.
When I first taught my fifth graders about these words, they had a tendency to want to call out, “don’t use just!” whenever another student would slip up. We then had a brief conversation as a class on why shaming someone for a habit was less effective at promoting change than a simple reminder. We talked about monitoring our own language first, and then helping others improve their language if asked.
To further my point, I asked my class to be my accountability partners and to remind me whenever I used my most common diminishing phrase, “does that make sense?,” since I had a tendency to ask them this in art class. Instead of acting with the confidence I had in my ability to teach art, I was showing an uncertainty I previously hadn’t been aware of. I asked my students to give me a reminder to ask “do you have any questions?” instead. They agreed with enthusiasm and had fun helping me to change my habit.
In return, my students trusted me to say, “You don’t need to be sorry” whenever they started to ask me a question in class with “sorry, but…” They got used to rephrasing their questions in a more confident manner.
Tara Mohr says, “Keep being yourself. Women have unique ways of communicating — ways that tend to be more collaborative, consensus-building, and inviting.”
By practicing powerful communication, my students and I began to approach our words with a greater sense of mindfulness and awareness. We encouraged each other’s progress and helped each other to become more confident and assertive, while still using the communication styles that makes each of us unique.
What diminishing words do you use most frequently? What can you say instead to communicate with more power?