How Do We Undermine Ourselves?

This post was written by Hannah Morris, Facilitator and Coach at The Latimer Group.

Conversations are a dance. There are times when one partner or party clearly takes the lead, and other times where it is unclear who determines the next step.

In these more delicate dances, we edge forward, check to see if our audience is coming with us, then shuffle back and accommodate. We find ways to soften, lighten, downplay our opinions, statements, requests, and feedback to make them more palatable to our audience.

This is fine in social conversation and can be an important element of developing relationships. But when these techniques work their way into business meetings and presentations, they can become quite problematic.

To avoid overdoing, we undercut. We understate our message, undersell ourselves, and can even undermine our team, department, or organization.

While these specific techniques are rarely called out by the audience, their overall effect can be powerful. It can change the course of the conversation and, ultimately, the outcome.

The other day, a participant in one of our workshops asked for more examples of this because he was concerned that it was a problem both for himself and for his team. If this is an issue for you or someone you work with, and you want to address it, here are four elements of delivery to pay close attention to:

  1. Weak or qualifying language

With expressions such as, kind of, sort of, a little bit, pretty much, basically, hopefully, maybe, I think, I hope, etc., we take a strong statement and subtract impact. If our assertion is that this will be the right strategy moving forward, we do not need to introduce it with a “We think” or “We hope” statement. As we are closing out a strong message, we should not invite doubt by suggesting that now the audience “hopefully” sees the value in this plan. And if our project is not on time, we should not state that “We are basically on schedule.”, which is vague and worrying, but should instead offer a more direct clarification of the extent to which we are behind (one week, three days, etc.) and how we plan to manage the delay. Omitting these expressions is a simple way to add weight to our message.

  1. Uptalk or rising intonation

A statement ends with falling intonation and a question ends with rising intonation. But what is a statement that ends with rising intonation? It is a conversational device used to check in with our audience, see if they are following, and let them know there’s more to come. But it can also be confusing and unconvincing. It can change the tenor of our statements and sow doubt with our audience. When we are speaking, let’s use tone modulation to add appropriate meaning, feeling, and emphasis. Let’s make it clear whether we are stating or inquiring and ensure that our voice supports the power of our words.

  1. Conditional mood and passive voice

When we have an idea to propose, we are presenting the hypothetical. We are offering a solution and its potential benefits or suggesting an investment and its potential return. Our level of certainty is in question and is a critical factor. When we speak with “would” instead of “will” statements (conditional vs. indicative mood), everything feels less sure and immediate. “If we did this, we would see a return in 12 months.” is not nearly as convincing as, “If we do this, we will see a return in 12 months.” By simply shifting a statement to focus on what will happen if an audience acts now, we can create more urgency.

When we say that “The products will be tested.”, we have removed the team or system or technology that is responsible for the work and made our statement less active. Focus instead on who or what will take the action, “Our team tests each product with a five-step process to ensure efficacy.” The active voice is more motivating and assuring than the passive.

  1. Hesitation

If our voice or flow wavers during statements and responses, we signal that we are unsure. Our audience may interpret that our unsure delivery is based on an unsure message with unsure research and evidence. To project confidence, demonstrate conviction in what we are saying, and build credibility with our audience, we need to know our topic, be familiar with the message flow, and deliver it fluidly and deliberately. Preparation is key in helping us identify the points we need to land and the order in which to do it, but practicing out loud is also very important. To optimize delivery, let’s make sure that the first time we verbalize our key points is not in front of our intended audience.

Now, let’s pause for a moment to acknowledge that there are times when we need to communicate our lack of certainty. We may be seeking the audience’s guidance in understanding and addressing it. Like everything that we teach, it really comes back to the goal of the communication and our understanding of the audience in the room or on the call. But even in those instances, we need to add clarity, specificity, and intentionality to our uncertainty and not allow our delivery to convey a message that could confuse or undermine. Awareness of these elements will help us become more effective advocates for our ideas, our teams, our organizations, and ourselves.

Does your team:
– Take too long to make decision?
– Fail to ask for what it wants or needs from you?
– Make things too complicated?
– Deliver unconvincing or disorganized presentations?
– Have new hires who are unprepared to communicate in the workplace?

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Hannah Morris

A book about change

The Latimer Group’s CEO Dean Brenner is a noted keynote speaker and author on the subject of persuasive communication. He has written three books, including Persuaded, in which he details how communication can transform organizations into highly effective, creative, transparent environments that succeed at every level.