When Okta chief customer service officer Krista Anderson-Copperman communicates with other people, you might notice that two words--"I feel"--are conspicuously absent in her conversation, at least most of the time. To her, the phrase is a setback to personal empowerment.
"Both your speech and body language affect how your co-workers perceive you," Anderson-Copperman explains. "Conveying confidence verbally and nonverbally when sharing your ideas is key to your success. Phrases like 'I feel like' or 'I'm sorry but' during a business discussion can take away your power and inadvertently introduce a lack of confidence."
"Stating your opinions with confidence leaves little room for your audience to question their credibility," she adds. "So drop the qualifier and don't let your listener think you have any uncertainty."
Advice we all can take
Anderson-Copperman says that eliminating "I feel" and apologies during conversation is particularly important for women in the fight for equality. Ladies, she says, often proactively apologize because they don't want to come across as creating conflict. That can backfire, however, because "I feel" is grounded in gut rather than facts that can be perceived as infallible. It also can feed into the notion that women are too emotion-centric and, therefore, not as suited to the office.
But the advice can apply to men just as easily, as everybody tends to have a preconceived notion that they need to be liked in the workplace and, subsequently, not rock the boat too much.
"Everyone should present their ideas with confidence," Anderson-Copperman says, "no 'I think' or 'I feel' needed."
If not "I feel," then what?
"When given advance notice on topics, come prepared to share your ideas," recommends Anderson-Copperman. "Think through your perspective, as well as potential objections, ahead of time, and be prepared to defend your point of view. In the scenario where the discussion is more informal or on the fly, don't wait for the perfect moment to present your opinion, because it may never come. Instead, join the discussion. As long as you're focusing on your idea or argument and why it makes sense, you're not being 'aggressive'--you're doing your job well."
In line with this advice, remember here that, most of the time, the best way to win an argument or debate is actually to show the other side the degree to which they are right. That is, you essentially take the best possible proof points for the other side, acknowledge the strengths of those points, and then systematically address why each one still comes up short. This way, you neutralize the other individual's defense without any personal attacks, which keeps the discussion far more civil and effective.
Broadly, building a program that focuses on increased gender diversity can go a long way to encouraging people to shift their language. The same is true of employee resource groups geared toward female empowerment. A professional sounding board of diverse peers also benefits everyone--it keeps people honest and exposes them to new views, all while allowing workers to test new ideas or ways of thinking and build confidence.
But even if you don't have this type of program yet, Anderson-Copperman says you should hold yourself responsible for building the culture that encourages debate and contribution from all team members.
"It's a misconception that only individuals in formal leadership roles should lead this charge," Anderson-Copperman says. "As an individual contributor, you should do the same. Ask your peers for their opinion, share your ideas, and ask them to challenge them. Demonstrate robust yet productive debate. Obviously, this takes trust, and you have to spend time building that trust. But the sooner you establish this dynamic, the better you and your peers will be for it."
And if someone is holding back? The best thing you can do is take them under your wing.
"Meet with them one on one. Ask them their opinion and discuss their ideas. Match them with like-minded individuals or give them a special project to help build their confidence. Most [importantly], let them know you value their feedback and want to hear from them."
When "I feel" still has a place
As just about every psychologist will tell you, "I" statements still have exceptional value when it comes to getting people to stop feeling so defensive.
" 'I' statements are a valid tactic for conflict resolution, making the discussion feel more like a collaborative effort versus an attack on the listener," Anderson-Copperman acknowledges. "But this approach is best suited for an argument rather than when contributing to a discussion, and knowing the difference is key."
You don't necessarily have to have people camping out on the lawn to hear your words to be a success. But communication does matter, and nuances can make a big difference in how you come across to others. So unless things are getting heated, have the courage to jump in, simply state your position, and logically, respectfully, explain and defend it. If you're simultaneously listening and educating, rather than just narcissistically proving you can get to the top of the hill, you're on the right track.