Limiting Language

In the June edition of this magazine there was an article Entitled “ Women Told To Speak Their Minds To Get On In The Boardroom” which reported on research by linguistics expert Dr Judith Baxter. Searching for something else I discovered this interview with Dr Baxter which I think is really helpful in explaining more. (

In it she says

My principal finding is that senior women use a type ofleadership languagethat I call ‘double-voiced discourse’ (DvD) more than senior men. DvD involves anticipating the hidden agendas and concerns of your colleagues and adjusting what you say in light of this. It is used to predict and dilute potential conflict with colleagues especially in difficult or challenging contexts. It seems to be particularly prominent where women are outnumbered on Boards.”

She goes on to explain that this behaviour is learned “over time from girlhood” and that it is difficult to change.

She makes a suggestion – that I also believe can work effectively – which is to change the way we use language to our detriment is to watch for and notice when other people do it and then apply what you learn to the way you use words.

For example recently I was listening to a young woman talking about the work she was doing. Her passion came across loud and clear but when she told me how she got into it she said it was because she was “quite” good at communicating. I asked her if she was in fact “good” and there was no need for the qualifying “quite” and she smiled.

And when coaching a client during their search for a new job I was reviewing her CV. Although the her skills and experience closely matched what was being asked for in an advert for a vacancy she said that she had “some” experience in one of the key areas. When I asked her why she did not just say that she had “experience” she said that they did not want to sound too full of herself. I can’t be sure what the recruiter would make of it but for me it weakened what she was offering.

These things might seem minor but in context of Dr Baxter’s research they are still worth watching out for.

None of this matters though when someone chooses not to say anything at all for fear of what might happen if they do. I have no evidence of whether gender plays a part in this but I have met enough people who say that they would not speak up to offer suggestions, advice or contribute to the conversation as they either don’t feel they have anything to offer or they don’t consider what they might have to say has any value.

Maybe it’s time to challenge the language used by others – and ourselves – to make the change that Dr Baxter suggests is needed?


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1 Comment on Limiting Language

  1. Some time after I wrote this post I read this article from the Harvard Business Review…

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