Many women face challenges in how we communicate, whether it’s with our partners or our colleagues. The specifics of the situation don’t really matter, but the results are the same: We’re left feeling resentful and frustrated.
For instance, according to relationship specialist Amy Kipp, LMFT, we often have a hard time expressing our needs and asking for them to be met. We fear that we’ll be seen as needy, or we’ll be inconveniencing people, she said. We fear that others will think we’re high-maintenance, said Elizabeth Gillette, LCSW, an attachment-focused therapist, who specializes in working with individuals and couples as their families grow.
And it doesn’t matter whether the request is something small—like asking for a hug—or something big—like asking for a raise, said Kipp, who has a private practice in San Antonio, Texas. It all feels difficult, maybe even impossible.
We also struggle with being direct. We use words like “just,” “only,” and “kind of,” said Cheryl Sexton, LMFT, a psychotherapist in private practice who specializes in working with families and couples in Chandler, Ariz. We minimize our own message, water down our requests, and ask for permission, she said. We might say things like: “I was just calling to check on that deadline” or “Can we talk about that report that was due?”
We tend to start sentences with an apology, Sexton said, such as: “I am sorry, but can I have a minute of your time?” or “I’m sorry to bother you …”
We fear that being direct implies we’re being “’rude,’ ‘career-obsessed,’ or ‘selfish,’ among other [negative] things depending on the context,” said Gillette, founder of Heirloom Counseling in Asheville, N.C.
A lot of this stems from socialization and societal narratives. “While everyone has a different individual experience, girls are typically taught to be nice above all else,” Kipp said. These may be overt lessons by being told to be nice, or it might be subtle: “’Nice’ behavior, rather than bold or direct behavior, is more often rewarded with praise.”
So, as girls, we learn that it’s unacceptable to express ourselves directly, which either prompts us to be passive and cater to everyone else’s needs or to express our needs indirectly in passive-aggressive ways, she said.
(“To be clear, both of those behavior patterns are also present in many men, but for some women it’s an unconscious strategy to continue being perceived as ‘nice.’”)
In fact, Gillette believes that the socialized desire to be seen as nice is the biggest “communication barrier that keeps women from having their fullest, most fulfilling experiences in all areas [of our lives].”
We also learn that in order to maintain relationships or in order to be accepted and loved, we must be very vigilant about not upsetting others, she said. And we learn that women who state their needs are demanding, difficult and dramatic.
So we “dilute or abandon [our] own needs as [we] make the connection with the other person a higher priority. And resentment, frustration, and anger can result—as well as the fact that [our] own needs are likely not going to be met,” Gillette said.
But thankfully communication is a skill. It’s a skill we can learn and practice. It is a skill that gets sharpened over time. And it doesn’t require big, sweeping changes. Below, you’ll find helpful tips along with real-life examples on cultivating clear, confident communication.
Prioritize and name your needs. The most important message Kipp gives to women struggling with direct communication is two-fold: recognize your needs by regularly asking yourself: “What would make me feel best in this situation?”; and know that you always have a right to express your needs.
“In any situation, asking for what you need simplifies the situation for everyone because it puts the expectations clearly on the table,” Kipp said. Which means that you can openly and honestly discuss them.
Because this can be tough, Kipp suggested starting small in everyday conversation. This might look like saying, “I’d prefer to eat at that new Japanese place,” or “Can you help me clean the living room tonight?”
Reflect on how often you soften your communication. As Sexton said, sometimes we’re not even aware that we’re apologizing and using qualifying language, or we don’t realize the frequency. Gillette encourages her clients to check in with themselves about how often they soften their communication in order to seem “nice.”
Aim to be effective (versus nice). For Gillette being effective means making sure that her message is heard clearly. “When I am focused on being ‘nice,’ I tend to garble the message a little bit in hopes to soften how it is received.”
Of course, this doesn’t mean that you can’t be kind and direct, she said. “But when we focus on being nice, what we are really doing is being unclear.”
Gillette shared this example: When she’s being nice, she might say, “Just checking in to see if you got the email about the event next week. I know you are so busy right now (aren’t we all?!), and you have a lot on your plate, so if you aren’t able to accomplish that task, I totally understand. If you are able to get back to me and let me know where you are with everything, I would appreciate it! Thank you so much!”
However, when Gillette is focused on being direct (and kind), she might say, “Hi! I hope you’re doing well. Please let me know when you will be finishing up the project for the event next weekend. Thank you so much!”
Avoid passive speech. According to Sexton, “I would advise women not to use qualifiers or passive speech to make their position seem smaller or less than someone else’s position.”
She shared these examples:
- Instead of “I just wanted to check on that report,” try “I need an update on the report.”
- Instead of “I was only planning something small,” try “I planned an intimate event.”
- Instead of “I kind of wondered what you thought,” or “Does that make sense?” try “I look forward to hearing your feedback.”
- Instead of “I am not an expert, but…” try “I have thought a lot about this and …”
It’s hard to undo many years of socialization. It’s hard to do things differently after many years, too. However, you can start small. And you can regularly remind yourself that it’s OK to have needs, and to express them. Everyone has needs—and this doesn’t make you needy, difficult or demanding. It makes you human.
“By stating your needs, you are being more authentic and genuine than if you were to hide them and wish someone would notice,” Gillette said. Which also means cultivating more authentic and genuine relationships.
And when you’re clear and direct in your communication, whether at home or at the office, you’re creating a more meaningful, fulfilling life, too.