How to be Taken Seriously as a Woman (Part 1)

I recently returned from teaching a college course on persuasive speaking. I taught it with a dear friend of mine who works as a lawyer. I taught the class tools actors use to persuade an audience into feeling how he or she wants them to feel and my friend taught persuasion from the legal perspective.

We stumbled on a surprising theme: Even though we are female professors and the class was fifty percent female, generally the women in the class shied away from speaking up and speaking out. The women students also continually undercut themselves in their presentations, despite our efforts to provide them with tools that would empower them to speak assertively.

By talking to the women individually, I found that, for some, there was a battle happening in their mind.

One of my students did a good job of articulated this inner turmoil when she asked me, “How do I embrace my power without coming across as bossy or a bitch?”

Her question, as crass as it may sound, stuck with me, for many reasons. I don’t think that she is alone in suffering from this insecurity. This is not endemic to the classroom.

How many women have had this thought?

Recently, I was at a friend’s dinner party and I sat down with a woman who runs her own business. She asked me what I do and I told her that I am a performance coach who specializes in helping women find inner confidence and exude more authority. Immediately her ears perked up.

She replied: “I could use your help?? I often feel like my clients don’t take me seriously…??? And I don’t know why??”

These question marks are not typos, rather they are my attempt to communicate her precise intonation.

You may have noticed that many women around you present statements with questioning intonations, and if you haven’t, listen for this lilt-up at the end of sentences. (Think classic California, valley-girl speak.) And yes, though women form the majority of offenders, men also upspeak.

Both of the women above lilted-up at the end of their sentences. After further discussion, I also discovered that both held the same inner belief: The belief that if they state exactly what they want, others will be offended.

Why do we, women, think this way?

In The Power of Talk: Who Gets Heard and Why, published in The Harvard Business Review, Deborah Tannen articulated that women, like people from a different culture, have often learned a different speaking style than men. As girls, women tend to play with a single best friend or in small groups. They use language to negotiate how close they are. Girls learn to downplay ways in which one is better than the others and to emphasize ways in which they are all the same.

From childhood, most girls learn that sounding too sure of themselves will make them unpopular with their peers. A group of girls will ostracize a girl who calls attention to her own superiority. Thus girls learn to talk in ways that balance their own needs with the needs of others.

Does this sound familiar?

Women have a natural instinct to use their voice to balance the needs of others with their own, which includes inviting a dialogue as opposed to making statements, and to downplay their own knowledge for the sake of not being ostracized by the group.

The problem is that this habitual “upspeak,” as we call it, and other vocal patterns, can make women come across as less competent and self-assured than they are.

Upspeak can be appropriate for some groups and situations, but not for all. For most people it is a habit from childhood that might no longer be serving us.

So, how can we stop the undercutting, unflattering, upspeak habit?

We can learn from the challenges articulated by the two women above: Embrace your inner power and end your sentences. That’s right, try it out right now. End. That. Sentence. With. A. Period. Not. A question mark. Even if you don’t feel one hundred percent confident in what you’re saying, fake it until you make it. End your sentences and you, and other people, will start to take yourself seriously.

Once you’ve made a few statements, they’ll start to feel less awkward and less aggressive. You’ll start to get used to the way your assertive voice sounds and feels in your body. You’ll also start getting used to the reaction you get from others. They’re not offended, that face their making just means that they heard you. 

Click here to find out more about how I can get you off the upspeak train.


What is your Work?

There are moments in life where we experience realization. Byron Katy calls it waking up to reality. It is the moment you realize that you play a vital and unique role in the universe. I had my realization this summer when an eight foot, water-logged pole hit me on the back of the head when I least expected it.

That pole may as well have been dropped by God. It stopped me in my tracks and took me down to earth: pole to head, forehead to dirt, palms and heart to earth. In that moment, I was helpless. I could not lift my own weight. I dared not move my neck. All I had was my inner awareness and stillness. In that stillness, these were my thoughts:

  • I am not in control.
  • Life is precious and can be short.
  • Do your work now, not later.

As I gave the full weight of my body to the earth, and allowed my family to come and care for me, I also had a realization that these moments of complete and utter giving up, are not such a bad thing. Let others lift your weight into safety, let them hold the burden for a moment. My family brought me into our living room, one member at my head, the other at my feet, the last holding my hands. I was held completely. 

Waking up to reality.

Have you ever had a moment when you were no longer able to move forward in your current way of doing things? You may have become inexplicably sick, or physically hurt. A combination of your conscious and subconscious body would not let you continue on your current trajectory, probably for good reason. Your body was simply asking you to be still, become aware and realign your action. 


That pole made me commit.

The coaching work I’ve done this year comes from the tools of acting I learned while training at The National Theater Conservatory, the commitment work that shifted my life forever through The Max with Paula Shaw at Esalen Institute, and from the coaching training that I completed this year where I was able to synthesize my knowledge into simple and applicable tools that I can teach to anyone. 

But truthfully, it all came from from the moment when a pole hit my head. Because, in that moment, I committed to not thinking about it anymore, but actually doing it, now. 

What work are you still waiting to do?

In one-on-one sessions we break down your relationship to performance or, what happens to you when you stand up in front of other people and talk. We also break down the commitments you have made in your life by looking at your actions. The work takes you from how you show up now, to how you want to show up in a larger, more empowered, visionary way. 

As we come into a brand new year, I have a few wishes for you:

  • Stop.
  • Listening to your inner voice.
  • Clear clutter so your vision can arise.
  • Act on what you know to be true.

Most importantly: Start now.



The importance of an interior life

It’s like a movie.

This summer I had the opportunity to be with my family on a remote island off of Vancouver island. Quiet, free from technology’s reach, distractions, social obligations and rat-race requirements. I was able to follow the threads of my curiosity and notice, without too much eye-raising or judgment from loved ones, what was “up” for me.  What began to fascinate me was the process of watching my inner life, like a movie.

Our inner life is always “on”, whether we are aware of it or not. We are running stories, memories. All the other parts of ourselves (the inner critic, the fearful child, the rebellious teenager, the dominating bitc–etc…) are reacting and responding to what’s going on outside (see the Pixar movie, Inside Out). It can color, warm or darken, our external experience. It can run wild like a film. One could even imagine our internal life set to a thrilling musical score, mirroring the rise and fall of our curiosity, inspiration, joy and the extremes of vulnerability, loneliness and even rage. All of these colors are present throughout our day  and often we don’t know why. There is an internal experience to everything. What is yours?

Is an interior life a good thing?

I get myself into trouble because I often find my interior experience to be far more exciting than what’s happening in front of me. This poses a problem in social situations. Great big grins to the left and right, silly pranks and antics, conversation for filler and shock value, provocative jokes and tirades against this or that group, extreme familiarity– arms strung between bodies, intertwined and suspended, clutching half-committed, are fun for a while but feel like we all have a great need to perform our internal experience rather than relishing savory moments and simply being with what is happening.  

Drawing yourself inward in the morning, for a moment of meditation, prayer, deep breathing can familiarize you to this place inside of yourself, inside of your experience, and alert you to some very significant signals throughout your day. How do I feel? What’s “up” for me? How do all the different parts of my body feel? What muscles am I needlessly holding?  Is my mind repeating a word, a song, a thought, a memory, over and over that I have tuned out? What is it saying? Where am I now and where do I desire to go? What can I do with all of this new information? This type of check-in can bring surprising clarity and direction.  

What’s the first step in getting to know our inner world?

Try this for a day: total external rebellion. Don’t read the news. Don’t read what other people think about what’s on the news. Don’t take pictures of your experiences. Don’t look at pictures of other people’s experiences, deciding whether you like them or judge them. Instead, appreciate the wealth of your own current existence, be in the soup of your own experience, and let everything else fall away. How fortunate we are to be so complicated! It makes for great entertainment.

The uniqueness of this moment will never come again– these people, this place, this fresh wind, this bite, this thought, this internal age of every cell, this coalescence of the right elements, at the right time, intersecting for a perfectly imperfect you, right, now.

Becoming Present


Sayulita, Mexico

I am perched on an uncomfortably tall chair. My fanny pack is on my lap, a little too cumbersome for comfort and I ask for my first cerveza of the evening. (Actually my first was beneath a blue awning while waiting for the green and white bus going to Sayulita. I drank and also watched a young mother gather the gaze of her babe in arms, hip hugging jean shorts, while waiting for the bus. )

I stay on that chair while two drunk girls stagger and glare when they hear my insufficient Spanish. The bar is too close for comfort to the musicians and I avoid eye contact as I have never been this alone in a new country. Finally I relinquish to the intelligence of my own body, I find another chair with a bit wider seat, farther away from the crowd and I give all of my nervous, loving energy of the moment to the musicians in front of me. If I can’t be comfortable, then at least I can make them feel adored.

Grounding myself in a new place is a process of becoming present to my sensations. I feel my feet, I feel the hot sand, I smell the smell of waves pulsing towards me. I pull my knees closer towards me and release that spot in my in the low of my back with breath. The sun on my shoulders, a book between my hands, I watch the surf, the strong but soft waves, the beginning surfers, the kids fluidly playing between the waves and the playa.

Back to the woman at the bus stop. Her eyes gaze into her child’s eyes. She is so young, maybe eighteen. But with hair and skin so healthy and fair, maybe she ages slower than we do. Her gaze is pure and without self-judgement. She is not comparing herself to others around her. She has no stroller or diaper bag. She is not living a life she doesn’t have time for. She is not aware of anything besides connection with her baby.

I feel my neck unwind and the image of a snake comes from my dreams last night to my consciousness. “To unwind.” What a perfect metaphor for what literally happens in your body, down to your cells when you come to a place of peace and safety, you unwind. My neck releases in both directions and I think I just grew taller, my eyes brighter, my senses cleaner. I am unwinding. No matter what from or why, but the serpent is uncurling and wants to be long and free. I feel my head and my tail.

The sand is warm, not hot and my face finds comfort underneath a small hat. I acrobat into the water and I wonder why no else seems to like to walk on their hands in the surf. I remember what my yoga teacher this morning said about finding our “feet” wherever the ground may be. And I like thinking of myself as an animal, diving into the water, my feet are now my hands. I feel the water, I free my mind of clutter, I feel the water, the buoyancy of the salt. I look for smiles and smiles from within. I am finding my ground.

I watch a young man moving into the water. He is a fisherman. With playfulness he dances. With keen observation he moves to an inner rhythm in his steps. He finds purpose in goodness and allows joy to bubble up without a lid.