ooba's Linda Roos on what to mind in your language


ooba's head of human capital offers tips on how to use language that conveys confidence and credibility.

Some time ago, I came across Ellen Petry Leanse's “Just” Say No blog post wherein she shares her insight on the extent to which women use the word “just” as a permission word. As Leanse explains, a permission word like “just” is “a subtle message of subordination, of deference” and reflects the “child” role (Transactional Analysis) women inadvertently take in business.

To illustrate her point, she cites examples such as “I’m just following up on…” and  "I just wanted to check in on…”  statements that put the other person into the "parent" role, thereby giving them higher authority and more control. (As someone who is not a fan of either, and mortified by the realisation that I was unwittingly engendering both, I now thoroughly curate my use of the word and no longer begin any conversation with “I just...”)

That aside, and not to diminish Leanse's point, this is not exclusive to women. We all do it but for a different reason, which I explain further on. Routinely, I see men and women unconsciously take on the "child" role in work and social situations, sometimes to such an extent that it materially and adversely impacts the outcomes of meetings and quality of conversations.

“We can always change it...”; "I'm happy to discuss it further…”; “I'm just saying...”; “It's just a suggestion...”; “We don't have to make a decision right now...” or “No decision has been made on this...” are all examples of "permission" phrases I have heard men and women use when really that is not what they meant or what was called for under the circumstances.

Trailing off at the end of a sentence; rambling; stuttering; raising your pitch; lowered eyebrows; hesitation and moderating language and tone are all examples of permission behaviour that I have seen both men and women display (when actually, they are inherently confident and poised). So, why do we do it?

Needless to say, there are a multitude of clinical psychological, even cultural reasons why people show up in the child state  none of which I am certified to expand on. Based on my experience, however, I think it is often nothing more than a mechanism to avert or buffer the impact of drama, especially in business.

Not conflict, but drama.

Conflict still allows for open, responsive debate but drama quietens all the voices. Conflict can be generative, but drama shuts down creativity and rational thinking. Conflict can be low temperature, drama can't. Conflict can create positive stress - drama only causes distress. Supreme drama looks like: crying, shouting, swearing, banging things, storming out and so on.

Muted drama (the more socially accepted and therefore more commonly experienced variety) looks like exaggerated sighing, eye-rolling, stopping mid-sentence and refusing to go on speaking, sarcasm, arm-folding, sulking, irritability, silent treatment and so on. For me, both are equally destructive and equally detestable.

When a radically differing opinion; a fixed mindset; an unresolved grudge; conscious incompetence or a plain bad hair day presents as a vicious backlash to your contribution in a conversation, even passive-aggressively,  the old adage, 'once bitten, twice shy' rings true. No one wants to be hit with the drama stick twice.

So, out of desperation to maintain harmony and avoid drama, we go into “permission” mode. Don't get me wrong, sometimes a little amiability is necessary it is when our aversion to drama drives us past amiability to the point of "radical acquiescence" that things go south. First off, radical acquiescence ruins our credibility and weakens our conviction it makes us look insecure.

Further, it leads to important decisions either being unreasonably procrastinated on or not being taken at all (worse, we risk becoming irrationally acquiescent and take the wrong decisions). Lastly, it lets the drama king or queen win giving them more power, more control and another permission slip to go on behaving badly. But here's the thing. It is human to instinctively move away from pain (drama) and towards pleasure (harmony). This is after all the brain's most fundamental organising principle.

It is, however, also within your ability to self-regulate  to insulate yourself against the drama and calibrate your response to it. How I have learnt to do this is by looking out for the red flags that signal my transitioning to permission mode. What happens to me physically? For example, does the tone and pitch of my voice change? Does my posture become submissive? Do I pull back at the end of a sentence? Then, I listen to my self-talk. What conviction-killing monologue do I have on repeat? For example, “You don't know what you're talking about”; “Don't push his/her buttons”; or “It's not your place to challenge.” Another old technique I use to re-calibrate is to literally stop, look around and continue.

There are many different ways to self-regulate, a good coach can help you find one that works for you. Whatever your strategy, don't get derailed by the drama.

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