I just kinda sorta think you should relax about assertive language

By Jen Neumann | Guest Column

Somewhere Sheryl Sandberg just shuddered. According to multiple articles and business books, I undermined my own authority with that headline. These articles love to tell us (especially women) how we should speak/behave/carry ourselves to appear more assertive and be taken more seriously by others.

“I just…”

“I kind of…”

“I sort of…”

“I think…”

“I don’t mean to be (insert adjective) but…”

I agree that all of these phrases make our language weaker and often dilute our messaging. In most written communications, they should be eliminated, especially in business writing.

However, in everyday spoken language, we are undermining our own confidence by trying to regulate a normal part of today’s speech patterns. We are wired to give verbal cues that say that we are open, that we are not necessarily the aggressor. And contrary to what self-help gurus – who have purportedly exorcised these words and only speak with perfectly calculated phrases – think, you are not doing yourself in every time you let one slip.

Many of these articles aim to help women strengthen their communications, but in reality, many men soft-pedal their own language. Of note, millennials are heavy users of softer language and it has become part of their language norms. In many cases, it is a form of self-awareness.

While using a phrase like “I just,” or “I kind of sort of” do soften language and can give the appearance of a lack of assertiveness, it is not always the worst thing. True, for some of us, it can feel like nails raking a chalkboard. But often, it is being used as a sign of deference and even more often, a sign that someone is open and listening. The phrases can signal that someone is balancing assertiveness with a willingness to be open to other’s thoughts.

Rather than trying to reform what has become a natural language pattern, it is better to understand where and when you need to signal confidence and assertiveness and plan to speak directly and decisively. Then let yourself (or your colleagues, if you’ve been haranguing them) off the hook the rest of the time.

There are times that indirect, passive or indecisive language will be a detriment to your career or business objectives. But in daily communications, you can do yourself or others more harm by expending energy trying to drastically change this communication tendency. Over time, you, or others, will naturally reduce the usage, rather than stuttering and becoming flustered.

I mean, I kind of think so. •

Jen Neumann is owner and CEO of de Novo Marketing in Cedar Rapids.