The Surprising Power of "Powerless Speech." Can Women Use Speech Disclaimers to GAIN Respect?

If you have established credibility, our natural inclination to not sound pompous, aggressive or abrasive can be a superpower.

There has been a lot of conversation and media attention lately about the negative impact on girls and women when they use disclaimers in their speech. 

However, there is a dissenting opinion out there and, before we start burning our bras, it’s worth taking a look.  

This opposing view believes that the proper use of disqualifiers, hedges, and hesitations can actually make you powerful, not powerless.  

This expert says that the most well-respected men do it too.

So who is right?

In case you’ve missed the discourse and don’t know what a speech disclaimer is, I offer Washington Post opinion writer, Alexandra Petri’s funny take on “Woman-in-a-Meeting” language.   She translates famous quotes “into the phrases a woman would have to...say them during a meeting not to be perceived as angry, threatening or (gasp!) bitchy.”

Some of Petri’s hilarious examples:

“Give me liberty, or give me death.”

Woman in a Meeting: “Dave, if I could, I could just - I just really feel like if we had liberty it would be terrific, and the alternative would just be awful, you know?  That’s just how it strikes me.  I don’t know.”

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Woman in a Meeting: “I have to say - I’m sorry - I have to say this.  I don’t think we should be as scared of non-fear things as maybe we are?  If that makes sense?  Sorry, I feel like I’m rambling.”

“I have not yet begun to fight.”

Woman in a Meeting: “Dave, I’m not going to fight you on this.”

“I will be heard.”

Woman in a Meeting:  “Sorry to interrupt.  No, go on, Dave. Finish what you had to say.”


All kidding aside, Rachel Simmons, the author of Curse of the Good Girl, says this habit starts early when young girls ask themselves questions such as “did I sound pushy?” or believe other girls will think “Oh, she’s is so proud of herself...She thinks she is so amazing...She is so full of herself”.  

She says that when they think this way, they start to “dilute their strong opinions” and create, instead, indifferent remarks.  

But what if our natural inclination to not sound pompous, aggressive or abrasive could be turned into a superpower?    

After all, I’m not sure these voices of self-doubt ever fully stop in a woman’s head. Is it possible these disclaimers could work to our advantage?

Adam Grant, Wharton Professor and author of Give and Take, thinks so. However, he says there is a serious and nuanced catch.

This only works if you are already perceived as an expert or extremely competent.

If you are, the disclaimers (especially on a close team) make you look more human, humble and approachable…like you are interested in the team or organization first, rather than just yourself.  Rather than cocky or aggressive. 

This is when you can become powerful.

However, Grant says it is essential to give people other signals establishing your competence in order to avoid what psychologists call the “pratfall effect”.  That is, if you are already looking weak, using “powerless speech” gives people just one more reason to dislike or disrespect you.  

This is when you can become the doormat that Petri and Simmons fear.

So assuming you are already viewed as competent, here is some “powerless speech” Grant says you SHOULD incorporate into your speech:

Hesitations: “well,” “um,” “uh,” “you know”

Hedges: “sorta,” “maybe,” “probably,” “I think”

Disclaimers: “This may be a bad idea, but”

Tag Questions: “That’s interesting, isn’t it?” or “That’s a good idea, right?” “What do you think?”

Intensifiers: “really,” “very,” “quite”

Grant says the reason this works is that assertiveness and projecting confidence doesn’t always gain influence. In fact, it can work against you.  

His research says there are two fundamental paths to influence: dominance (seen as strong, powerful, and authoritative) and prestige (when people respect or admire us).

Individuals are drawn more towards people who are prestigious rather than dominant.  They want to be on teams with those people.  Collaborate with those people.  Follow those people.  

Why?  Because, honestly, who wants to be dominated?

Dominance is a win-lose proposition, whereas prestige has the advantage of allowing everyone to win.  This is why disclaimers and questions can be powerful.  

These disclaimers let people know you aren’t trying to assert your opinion for dominance sake.  You are putting your opinion forward because you think it is a good one but would like to work collaboratively and hear what others think to make it better.

This is why it can be a power tool.

I think an adult can grasp this concept but I don’t know if my daughter is experienced enough to pick up on the difference.   

Is a 12-year-old too young to work on these skills?  How does a young girl establish competence first?  I don’t want my daughter to be a doormat either. 

For guidance, we need to go back to Rachel Simmons’ book, Curse of the Good Girl.

There are a few items on her no-no list which I’m sure Grant would agree are true competence killers.

Ending speech with:

-Inflections that make statements sound like questions (“Holden Caulfield was really depressed?  And he was a rebellious teenager?”)

-Sentences that lose volume and become inaudible

Putting yourself or abilities down:

-“I’m so stupid.”

-“I failed that test” (before getting the results back) or “I’m going to fail that test.”

Using Self-Defeating Gestures:

-Playing with hair

-Hands hovering around the mouth


These are easy fixes which will help our daughters demonstrate likability in positive ways.  

In stronger ways.

However, let’s not lose sight of the fact that these socialized behaviors have their roots in a well-intentioned place. 

Women are naturally inclined toward inclusiveness and this is an asset.  A strength.

If you genuinely care about others, what they think, and are willing to incorporate their opinions to make an idea stronger, then you will be truly powerful.

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 Girls Leadership | Negotiation Skills | Gender Gap | Influencing Skills
 Girls Leadership | Negotiation Skills | Gender Gap | Influencing Skills
 Girls Leadership | Negotiation Skills | Gender Gap | Influencing Skills
 Girls Leadership | Negotiation Skills | Gender Gap | Influencing Skills