When the Unthinkable Strikes You Speechless

By GGTW co-founder Tricia Yacovone-Biagi

I recently attended a conference that included a breakfast meeting for women in an industry that has traditionally been populated by men. One of the questions that arose dealt with how women can respond to workplace harassment in a healthy and confident manner so the undesirable behavior can stop. The speaker stated what seemed to me to be an obvious answer: “Say something to the offender. Right away.”

I took a bite of toast. Nothing new there. People need to know when they’ve crossed a line.

“But what happens when you’re so shocked you can’t think of anything to say?” someone asked from the audience. Now that’s something that really captured my attention, so I put down my fork full of scrambled eggs. I know how it feels to be stunned speechless (which is kind of embarrassing for someone who has earned a living in the communications field). I was curious to hear how the speaker would handle that scenario.

It turns out the speaker had encountered just such a situation before, and she handled it brilliantly! The story she recounted went something like this: A colleague approached her for advice after one of the men in her workgroup–a group she had been in for years–made an insensitive and sexist comment. This woman, the speaker explained, had been so thrown off balance by her coworker’s remark that words completely failed her at the time. She instead ended up carrying the discomfort and hurt around with her, not knowing how to address the so-called elephant in the room…which only made matters worse. So far, this scenario sounded all too familiar to me, based on my own personal experience and the experiences of many colleagues and friends. My interest continued unabated.

The speaker told her colleague to first figure out what needed to be said and then to practice saying it. She helped the woman discover why the statement felt offensive to her and what words she felt comfortable using to tell the man in an assertive and clear way how and why his comment was offensive. After practicing a few times, the woman developed her confidence and approached the coworker who had made the offensive comment. She told him clearly and assertively how his words had offended her, and he apologized profusely. Even better, the man told other coworkers how things they might want to say could be offensive to the other members of the team and the behavior has not occurred again.

A strong woman loves who she is, trusts her instincts, speaks her mind, and doesn't take crap from anyone.
Find inner strength in your instincts, and use it to speak your mind.

What a brilliant outcome, not only for the woman who found her voice and spoke her truth, but also for the man who gained an understanding about how his comment had been perceived! Just think of how the multiplier effect of this interaction will impact others who may cross their paths in the future.

The speaker summed up her discussion by suggesting that we all have a responsibility to address sexism and harassment when they occur. This makes the workplace safe for everyone. But to do that effectively, we need to have responses ready for these incidents…because they will happen. Practice in advance how to verbally respond to a situation in the same way you develop muscle memory through repetition of a desired physical movement. Then, when a harassing or sexist comment stuns you, you won’t be speechless, but will have words ready to speak immediately.

Realize your worth. Demand the respect you deserve.
When you realize how valuable you are as a person, it becomes easier to expect (and demand) the respect you deserve. And you are valuable!

Inspired by the speaker’s example, and motivated by the memories of those regretful experiences when I was struck speechless in my own life, I decided to come up with responses to insensitive remarks or inappropriate acts that I could practice now. To do so, I read through several articles about sexual harassment and assault prevention for school, work, and even just out in the world. All the articles stressed the importance of speaking up assertively and clearly right away, making eye contact with the offender, and keeping the response brief and specific. I posted many of them here, with additional variations that you may find useful in formulating your own statements.

Say no. And be clear, calm and confident when you say it. Variations include:

  • Your behavior is not acceptable.
  • That statement was inappropriate.
  • I’m disappointed you would say something that offensive.

Be specific about what the harassing behavior is. Focus on the behavior rather than the person’s character. Examples include:

  • Do not [touch my hair, expose yourself, say you like my looks]. That is harassment.
  • Touching me for anything other than a handshake is unacceptable. Don’t do that again.
  • Looking at my chest when you speak to me is harassment. Look me in the eye instead.

Ask for clarification about the behavior. Making the person explain himself (or herself) might help them realize on their own the offensive nature of what they did.

  • What did you mean by that statement?
  • What did you expect me to do when you exposed yourself?
  • Why are you standing so close to me?

State how the harassing behavior makes you feel. Be clear about this, and remember that you don’t have to apologize for how you feel.

  • I am threatened when you lean over the desk into my space. Back up.
  • That email/comment/text message made me worried that you expect something other than a professional relationship. I don’t want that.
  • I am uncomfortable with this conversation. Let’s focus on [the work agenda, this project, the client’s deliverables].

There are lots of helpful resources online, including some you can print out and have ready, or use to practice. I personally love the verbal self-defense guidelines, but I found several others that are also excellent:

Lastly, remember that what someone else does, is not your fault. In fact, according to Sara Feldmann, of the University of Iowa’s office of sexual misconduct, “The tendency for women to blame themselves is actually an inhibitor to an effective response (to harassment).” Don’t go there. Learn to address harassment immediately and confidently using these tools instead. Be strong. Be clear. And Go Get The World!

Here's to strong women. May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them.
Help others get stronger by guiding them to find their voice.

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