Verbal Presence and Softeners

I often coach women leaders who use softeners in their speech – the “you know” and the “I think” or the “I guess”.  I call them softeners because these phrases have the effect of pulling power away from their words – making them softer, less threatening.  Several  clients have told me they were taught to soften their language as girls so their listeners would not be turned off!  Now that they are leaders, this habit of “softening”  can get in their way.

I worked with Jane, a human resources executive with a major non-profit in an East Coast city.  Jane had a advanced degrees, years of experience, and still found that the senior leaders of her organization were not involving her in decision making.  Jane said she didn’t know why that was happening, and it was causing her to lose confidence in herself.  She said she wasn’t sure if she was suited for a senior role.

Jane had a softener habit – hers was a laugh.  She would make a statement and then end it with a little laugh.  In a conversation, most of her statements were followed by that “softening laugh”, and it landed on me, as the listener, as charming –  but not serious.  No matter how profound her assertion was, the laugh said “I’m not really sure I mean this and you shouldn’t think I mean it either.”    I asked Jane about the laugh and she said she hadn’t noticed it – so I asked her to pay attention to it and track how often she used a “softening laugh” in conversation with colleagues.  The next time we spoke, she reported that she was stunned to discover she was laughing at the end of sentences most of the time!  Once she began to notice this habit, she automatically shifted her behavior.  Now when she talks her voice drops at the end of the sentence and she ends strong – she “sticks the landing”.

She practiced other confidence boosting strategies as well, like grounding her energy and making sure she was breathing evenly and deeply when in meetings with colleagues.  Four months later she reports feeling much more confident, and she is pleased that the CEO now regularly comes to her for guidance and advice.  We’ll never know how much of that shift can be attributed to her change in voice….but she’s certainly happy with the change. ” And”, Jane said, “I still laugh, but now my laugh means something is funny, not ‘I’m not serious'”.



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