Minimize your Minimizing

I’m sorry, but……… I just wanted to follow up……..I won’t take too much of your time…… are invited to a short session…………. let’s have a quick call……maybe this sounds silly……it might not be important but ……you may have already thought of this……

How often do you catch yourself starting a sentence with these kinds of statements? Often stated verbally at the start of a meeting or when you are contributing throughout a meeting. Perhaps prominent for you when approaching somebody about a task for a project you are leading.

Minimizing language is weak language that diminishes the importance of what you want to say or achieve. Women are more likely than men to make frequent use of minimizing language, particularly if they are from a culture that values being modest and avoiding bringing attention to oneself. It can become a default way of working  and may not be something you are aware of. The volume at which you speak can also feed into minimizing if you are barely audible and people are always asking you to speak up.

Using minimizing language can have an impact on the level of gravitas you cultivate for yourself which affects your professional image, brand, and reputation. It portrays uncertainty and when women show up demonstrating uncertainty it can undermine their reputation unfairly which can negatively impact your career progression.

This affects many women at all levels in all workplaces and can even exist in women that are at the very top of their game. Consider the time we saw Naomi Osaka, the current world number 1 ranked women’s tennis champion, now the highest-paid female athlete in the world win her first US Open Grand Slam in 2018 against her idol Serena Williams. Naomi, who has a Haiti born father and a Japanese mother grew up in the USA since age 3 where tennis had always been a major part of her life. She had dreamed of winning the US grand slam all her life and as a young girl, she would watch each year from the crowd.

When she reached the pinnacle of her career she was awarded with prize money of 3.8 million dollars for winning her first grand slam. Naomi was the first-ever Japanese person to win a grand slam and yet she felt like the underdog. She was the one taking the title from the previous successive champion, amongst a crowd that was cheering furiously for her opponent Serena and even booing Naomi throughout the match. When it came time to make her winners speech it was riddled with minimizing language.

Naomi’s started her speech with an apology, saying “I am sorry it had to end like this”. Her high level of emotion and empathy for the crowd took her attention as well as the focus of her words and undermined her confidence. She prioritized addressing how the crowd was feeling rather than owning her success and standing up proud of her achievement. Similarly the following year, when she took out the Australian Open title for the first time, Naomi commenced the first line of her acceptance speech with another apology, saying “Ummmm, hello everyone, I am sorry public speaking is not my strong point and so I just hope I can get through this.”

Naomi’s minimizing language in her acceptance speech spoke volumes to how she was feeling in that moment and detracted from the celebration of her achievement which was so rightfully and deservedly hers to celebrate.

The over-use of apologies or the all too regular action of opening communications with an apology is one of the most prevalent forms of minimizing language that women put into play. Imagine what else could be possible for Naomi if the minimizing could be minimized too!

Best Selling Author Sally Helgesen, who pioneered the term Minimizing, describes how it holds women back in her book called How Women Rise. Sally speaks of Aiko, an Engineer from Japan who had been taught as a child that women should be tentative, hesitant, and very quiet. Speaking up or being direct was considered rude, coarse and noisy. As in many cultures, indirectness is viewed as the preferred, polite behavior. This was true for Aiko and when she stood her ground or tried to speak with authority in her job, she often had the feeling that she was dishonoring her family. This undermined Aiko’s ability to establish a leadership presence, stalling her career growth.

Minimizing is not limited to the spoken word, it is a habit that also affects how you show up physically through demonstrating body language that diminishes your presence and your ability to be present, thus undermining your ability to hold your space which also impairs career progress.

Another Author Amy Cuddy speaks in her book Presence, of the impact of contracting, collapsing, and disappearing body language and how the truth about how much we believe in our abilities can be revealed more through our actions than through our words.

Think about where you choose to sit when you have the chance to be seated in the conference room or a networking event. Do you sit where you will be visible and taken notice of or do you prefer to shrink into the background and take a back seat?

How do you make use of the available space whilst waiting to go into an important first meeting or even a job interview? Are you huddled over, hunched up looking through your phone, or do you stand tall and even walk around a little?

Taking opportunities to take up as much physical space as possible will help establish a stronger presence.

Do your own minimizing audit to create the new habit of maximizing!

Go through your written words, in sent emails, in WhatsApp messages, and what you are looking for is any evidence that you may use minimizing language. Inspect all your written communication to look for patterns of minimizing words.

Look out for keywords: Try, just, sorry, apologies, quick, little, short.

Assess for yourself which keywords dominate your written work. It is highly likely the same will be true in your spoken words. Refer to the below guide for an alternative action:

  • Remove TRY from your vocabulary and replace it with “I will”
    I will try to be there – I will try to get it done – You either can or you cannot. Don’t be a fence sitter-say what you mean.
  • Remove JUST from your vocabulary and replace it with “simply” or “hardly”
    The word just does not add value and you ideally leave it unreplaced as it is an unnecessary filler.
  • Put APOLOGIES back in their rightful place and replace them by focusing on what you are hoping to happen
    Only apologize when you have truly regretfully done something wrong and don’t start communications with that as your first opening sentence.

Take up physical space

Take regular breaks throughout the day and walk around rather than remaining seated in one spot.

If needing to remain seated-check your posture and sit up straight. Amy recommends wrapping your arms around the back of the chair rather than keeping them in your lap to avoid the tendency to hunch over.

If you can’t take up physical space imagine yourself doing so, the powerful force of visualizing you taking up space will help that come to fruition.


Power Pose Up

You may have heard the term power posing and there are different schools of thought as to whether regularly practicing power posing tricks the mind into having stronger feelings of confidence over time or not. According to Amy Cuddy, if you practice “expanding your body at regular intervals your body causes you to think about yourself in a more positive light and trust in that self-concept. It also clears your head making space for creativity, cognitive persistence, and abstract thinking.” What’s not love about that?

Whenever you get a chance take the opportunity to expand your body by placing your hands on your hips and your feet widely spaced on the floor. It is a great way to prep before an important meeting or presentation or link it to a regular activity like after washing hands in the washroom, reapplying the lipstick and do a power pose. You can even do half-power pose with one hand on your hip whilst brushing your teeth.

Whenever you use words or actions that minimize your presence or contribution, you show uncertainty and limit the space in which you have the right to take up. As Amy Cuddy says “your body shapes your mind, your mind shapes your behavior and your behavior shapes your future“ so the sooner you start taking up more space with your physical presence and reduce the use of minimizing language the sooner you own a brighter future career outlook.


Article written by Simone Lawrence-Managing Partner, Executive Coach and People Developer at The Ameliorate Group. Content inspired by the book called “How Women Rise” by Sally Helgesen-12 habits that hold women back from being successful in their careers-as well as my own experience as executive coach when coaching senior leaders in the workplace.

The Ameliorate Group, Learning Partner with Women@Work, is a leadership and corporate coaching consultancy offering a range of bite-sized learning solutions to long-term development programs incorporating executive coaching to achieve organizational goals. The Ameliorate Group aims to superpower your teams and individual capability beyond what you thought was possible.

The first ‘How Woman Rise” program is available across the Middle East through The Ameliorate Group powered by Sally Helgesen. Creating more inclusive workplaces of the future through raising awareness of the habits that hold women back from being more successful in their careers. Encouraging both genders to engage in dialogue and co-creation of solutions and strategies to help women rise at work and in business.