How to Speak with Authority

I originally wrote this post in 2015 titled Just don’t say Just. I still hear women discuss what words they should use and how the word “just” in particularly negatively impacts them at work. In the Harvard Business Review Women at Work podcast, Amy Bernstein and Sarah Green Carmichael discuss how to use an authoritative voice without turning people off. One of the areas this came up was the word “just”. Sarah Green Carmichael was concerned that she sounded too bossy when she removed “just” from her writing – like I did back in 2015.

The original inspiration for this post came when a former Google Exec, Ellen Petry Leanse, wrote about one of the problems of using “just”. The problem with using “just” is that it is another way of asking permission first instead of stating what you want. Concerned about the use of the word, she asked her team to make a conscious effort to stop using it. According to Petry Leanse, “just” phrases are “a subtle message of subordination, of deference.” If women want to be taken seriously, they need to adjust the language they use in the workplace by stop saying “just”.

To test out the theory I stopped using the “J” word. At first, I thought my emails were too harsh with using “just”. I felt insecure sending emails out that seemed so strongly stated but in the end, I think they had more clarity and direction than without the “J” word.

Some of the examples of the word “just” I found myself saying quite often were

  • “I just wanted to check in on …”
  • “Just wondering if you’d decided between …”

How many of these sentences convey the same meaning simply by removing the word “just”?

  • “I just sent out the invitation for Friday…” can be re-written as “I sent out the invitation for Friday.”

or

  • “I just wanted to double check you got the correct rate” can be re-written as “I wanted to double check that you got the right rate.”

By omitting “just” from our vocabulary, Petry Leanse, the HBR Ladies, and I thought our writing became clearer and less prone to misinterpretation. Petry Leanse noticed her team and herself had better “communication — even our confidence. We didn’t dilute our messages with a word that weakened them.” Bernstein from HBR thought besides being bad writing, “the woman who gets it is thinking, ah, finally, clarity”.

However, Petry Leanse says women still have a ways to go when removing the “J” word from their vocabulary then men do. Although it benefits both men and women to speak more confidently by removing “just” from their word choice, it impacts women more because they use it more.

Like Petry Leanse, I did my own little experiment. I looked back at the past 100 emails I sent to see how many times I wrote the word, “just”. Out of those 100 emails, the word “just” was used 25 times.

For comparison, I did a search on the last 100 emails received from one of my male co-workers. He wrote the word “just” 23 times. To truly test the significance of using the “J” word between genders I would have to test the response I got from “just” emails vs. my male co-worker.

When we focus on the words we use or in this case words to remove from our vocabulary, we can mold the way we’re seen and how our thoughts are interpreted. By speaking and writing clearly, we project confidence and are seen as leaders. When I removed the “J” word from my professional vocabulary, I found myself more confident in the emails I sent and the way I communicated.

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