“Weak language” and growth mindset

Our culture values displays of confidence. As this 2013 HBR article and its 2019 follow-up argue, we are (still) promoting incompetent men, because men are more likely to display (over)confidence.

To help women advance in their careers, we get all sorts of advice teaching us how to communicate more confidently, with fewer qualifiers, less self doubt, and an assertive tone. Women’s communication style, which tends to express more doubt, is labeled “weak language.” We’re supposed to unlearn it and instead, communicate confidently, like men do – this article in The Atlantic, for example, aims to help women change so they can close the confidence gap; this Lean In tutorial advises to fake confidence until you make it – but read the article in The Atlantic before you decide to take this advice. It explains that “Most people can spot fake confidence from a mile away.”

But, let’s stop and consider whether powerful speech is indeed desirable. Besides the troubling argument that women should change in order to succeed in our society, what could be the value of a communication style that leaves room for doubt?

In communication studies, we consider dialogue the highest and most desirable form of human communication. A core characteristic of dialogue is both sides’ openness to being wrong, and willingness to allow themselves to be changed by the other. Powerless speech does exactly that: by expressing uncertainty, it shows openness to dialogue.

Interestingly, several studies show that expressing uncertainty can make you more, not less, persuasive. There is power in powerless speech. It is also a sign of intellectual humility.

Intellectual humility is a method of thinking. It’s about entertaining the possibility that you may be wrong and being open to learning from the experience of others. Intellectual humility is about being actively curious about your blind spots.

Intellectual humility: the importance of knowing you might be wrong

It makes little sense to me that expressing (self-)doubt is a sign of weakness. I take it as a sign of self-awareness and strength. It takes courage to say that you don’t know all the answers, but you’re open to learning. In other words, it shows growth mindset. So, shouldn’t it be valued?

As companies (such as Microsoft, my employer) advocate for embracing growth mindset, perhaps we can learn to value the behaviors that foster it, such as intellectual humility, expressing doubt and uncertainty – and appreciate the power of “weak language.”

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