Ways We Communicate at Work that May Be Undermining Us
Desk Lunch IRL was a live event that took place at Stink Studios in Brooklyn, NY on March 7th, 2019 in honor of International Women’s Day. For the next couple of weeks, in lieu of our typical essay format, we’ll be sharing videos and transcripts from this event. We hope to have another IRL event in the very near future, and will keep everyone posted on details! 
Desk Lunch IRL - Milan Moffat Transcript

Liz Wells 

Milan is a lifelong learner and digital product designer leading all things design at SuperHi, an online code and design school for creative people. She loves mindful traveling and filling her apartment in Brooklyn with way too many plants. Welcome Milan! 

Milan Moffat 
Hi everyone. Happy Thursday. Wow, that was really sad and my talk is not as deep, but hopefully useful. So I'm really excited to be here with you all tonight. Thanks so much for coming in and letting me share this. And thank you Desk Lunch for this opportunity. 

So I am Milan, I am the Design Lead at SuperHi. Online coding and design school for creatives. We make online courses and tools that help you learn new skills and grow in your career, and just generally make cool shit. So we have over 3,000 students from 80 countries, and I mentor a lot of students, and spend 90 percent of my time on Slack in written communication, as well as with my team. And I do design Thursday which was today, so I spent all day writing on Slack. 

I started in 2017 as one of the first employees, the first designer, and as of this month we're nine. People, awesome people from five countries around the world so this is who I talk to all day on Slack. 

And today I would like to talk about ways we communicate in the workplace that may be undermining us, so Happy Women's Day tomorrow, but the men in the audience can still learn from this. Especially as women, when it comes to written communication, and when you've never met some of your co-workers that you've been working with for almost two years and they don't really know you beyond your Slack avatar and a weekly Google Hangout call. They don't get to know your body language, your tone of voice, your mannerisms. How does that change the way that you communicate and how you perceive each other?

So how many of us add emojis after what we say to seem friendlier or you know, exclamation points, or words that are called “hedges” such as: just, actually, kind of, a little bit, sorry. Excessive apologizing. And it happens really easily and unconsciously, I do it all the time. And so it's something that, I've been working to consciously unlearn. And you know we often turn our statements or opinions, which can be really valuable and valid points, into questions so they're better received by others. And we also, women especially, use up speak, like I just did, to convey a point in a friendly tone. 

And why do we do this? So women care, and people in general care a lot about being likable. And it comes from a history of women being told how to behave, etiquette in conversation, how when and where to speak, how to be agreeable always, how feminine are you, how to be successful in all of these different ways. So many women I know, particularly myself, are relationship oriented. We care about how other people are feeling. We want to maintain peace in the workplace and our private relationships, our friendships. We grow up in school being taught that, you know, following the rules and being obedient to authority figures is what we should do, and women and underrepresented communities have literally survived by making sure that what they said and did was approved by those of greater power. 

So yeah, there's a lot of research in gendered speech patterns and societal norms, and while these etiquette guides may seem laughable in 2019, there are still deep rooted beliefs about how men and women are supposed to behave and communicate, especially in the workplace. We speak this way, we soften our tones and seem friendlier, because if we don't, we risk being dismissed, labeled as “too direct”, “bossy”, or “bitchy”. So there are a few reasons why we do this: How did we learn to speak like this? Why does it happen so subconsciously? We say "I was just wondering." "Just wanted to follow up." We hear other women speak like this and we internalize that this is how it is done. Self-doubt and lack of confidence often results in slipping in an "I was just thinking." "I actually disagree." We apologize for taking up space and for asserting our opinions. Especially in my industry, and probably a lot of our industries (tech) but especially working with software engineers every day, I know a lot about coding but I wouldn't classify myself as a developer and a lot of students that I mentor say "I know how to code, but I'm not a developer yet" and they don't carry themselves with confidence.. So, as much as I mentor other people to say, you know, "You are a developer, your opinions, thoughts, work, is valid." I have to remind myself to also take that advice. 

People pleasing and avoiding conflict and the double bind are a few things that really pissed me off and I thought that this is bullshit. That women even have to think about this all the time, and I think about it so much. How often do my male employees, you know, carefully curate their words not come off as too assertive, or unsure about what they're saying if it's right or not. 

"The Double Bind" is a well-documented phenomenon that basically states that women are either perceived as competent or likeable but not both. And it's not something just women face, but also people in low-power communities.  

So there are a couple of specific patterns that I want to point out that may be hurting us in the workplace. Watch out for hedges. So these are things like, "I just feel..." "Actually, I had an idea..." "Kind of feel like it might be better if we did this..." Or "I almost think...." So things like this, just say what you feel. State your opinion. Lose all of these things. And you'll sound much more authoritative, assertive, and confident. Undermining qualifiers, these are things like "I could be wrong but..." Or "Does that make sense?" "Am I making sense?" Unnecessarily apologizing. "Sorry if I wasn't clear." Or "Sorry about that, I must have missed that." Just say you know. "Oh, thank you for clarifying.". 

Up talk, I mentioned before, this is more like a verbal, in-person setting. So on Google Hangouts I try extra hard to be friendly because I don't see my co-workers everyday. But I want to make sure that I'm speaking confidently and not up. No pauses. So a lot of times, you know women get interrupted in the workplace, it's like way more than men, and so we try to fill up the space. But if you pause you can be seen as more thoughtful and authoritative as well. It's okay to have pauses and think about what you say in verbal situations. As well as we also substitute questions for statements so, try to ask yourself "Am I really asking a question or could this be a statement?" 

I like this quote by Tara Mohr who wrote a book "Playing Big" which is where a lot of the inspiration for this talk came from, which is "we silence our most radical ideas because we're afraid of rocking the boat or offending others. And we prioritize likeability over speaking up." 

So the problem is that you may be undermining your knowledge expertise and perceived competence in the way that you communicate, especially the way you write. 

And the solution is, how do we communicate with warmth while also demonstrating confidence and competence because we can do both. We don't have to adhere to the "Double Bind" that women are likeable, but less competent because they're nice, or assertive but kind of bitchy and nobody really likes them. 

The first thing that I am practicing is to open and close warmly. So ignoring the fact that this is bullshit that we even think about all this in the first place, I've accepted this. And I open every, you know, e-mail and Google Hangout call with some personal questions like "What was the highlight of your weekend?" "How are the kids? I haven't seen a picture lately." And then you know my co-worker will be like "Oh yeah, here's a pic." Crack a joke. Use positive body language and smile. But not too much because it's shown that nodding and excessive smiling makes women seem less authoritative. Express gratitude — this is one that I personally really practice a lot, which is to thank people for their time before and after and make sure that they know that you're appreciative of them showing up. Look over your writing in your emails, so reread. One of the advantages of written communication, and my communication being 90% written, is that I can type something,  take a minute to look over it. So, change all your "sorry's" and apologetic words into "thank you's" and expressions of appreciation. "Sorry I'm running late." "Thank you so much for your patience I really appreciate it." "I just want to follow up." "Hey I'm following up on this." "Let me know if this makes sense." "Don't hesitate to reach out with any questions. I look forward to hearing your thoughts." There's a difference. 

There's also an email Gmail plugin called "Just Not Sorry." And it will highlight some things like, you know, "‘I think’ undermines your idea and displays an overall lack of self-confidence." Thanks. 

And finally this is less about how you say and more about what you're saying. But make your good work known. Women often feel uncomfortable explicitly advocating for themselves. And, you know, highlighting what they've been doing that's really great. But I've learned that in a remote team especially, and in written communication and people don't see what you're doing and you have to let them know. So don't assume that people are keeping tabs on what you're doing because everyone's pretty focused on themselves. So lift yourself up like you would a friend. When other people are doing good work, you can say that you noticed it, "Hey like this is really awesome." And when you see a colleague, or co-worker, or even a friend say "Yeah I'm kind of working on this. I think it's a good idea." Be like "It's a good idea. I really like it.". 

Two books that I suggest checking out if you're interested are Playing Big and Women Don't Ask. Women Don't Ask is heavy on negotiation and research which is another topic I'm passionate about. But these have really had a big impact on my career in the past few years. 

Thank you so much! Go out and be confident!
Milan Moffatt is a lifelong learner and digital product designer leading all things design at SuperHi, an online code and design school for creative people. She loves mindfulness, traveling and filling her apartment in Brooklyn with way too many plants.
Art used in this issue: “Woman and Cats” by Will Barnet
Desk Lunch is a community for all creative people of marginalized genders.
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