Attuned Leadership for Women Podcast
Episode 004: Backlash Navigation 101
The Key to Strengthening Your Confidence
This is the second episode of this 2-part series. In Episode 003, Dr. Crystal Frazee debunks the idea that women lack confidence and instead points out the real issues women face to show up fully. This episode is packed with actionable ways to solve the root problem of fear of backlash, including improving assertive communication skills, building a stronger network, and creating a culture that makes it easy and safe for women to celebrate their accomplishments regularly. Crystal also emphasizes the importance of educating all management on the influence of bias on feedback and promoting women to the top as role models.
Tune in for valuable insights on Attuned Leadership and how to get the opportunities you deserve as a professional woman, whether you’re in a traditional work setting or an entrepreneur.
[00:00:00] Confidence Myth Debunked.
[00:07:26] Assertive communication techniques.
[00:08:21] Feeling confidence in your body.
[00:12:16] Brag book for achievements.
[00:17:28] Setting and communicating boundaries.
[00:21:55] Visualization and body-based techniques.
[00:23:53] Visualization for Success.
[00:28:21] Give feedback without gender bias.
[00:31:36] Mentorship for women.
[00:28:14] Ask for constructive feedback.
[00:34:17] Attuned Leadership for women professionals.
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Mentioned in this episode:
Part 1 of this series, Episode 003: The Confidence Myth
Prefer to Read? Here’s the transcript!
*Just a heads up – the provided transcript is likely to not be 100% accurate
I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty tired of hearing the clickbait headline saying that women lack confidence. It perpetuates toxic stereotypes, blames women for the oppressive cultural realities they face, and fails to provide a helpful solution.
In the last episode, I debunked the idea that women have a confidence gap and instead pointed out the real issues women face to showing up fully. Today’s show is the second and final part of the series covering the confidence myth. I thought hard about what to share to give you the most value so that by the end of today’s show you have concrete ideas about how to manage the invisible but very real challenges you face. Let’s get to it.
I want to start out by saying that confidence is not solely based on activities or achievements, but is influenced by perception and internalized cultural norms. I’ve worked with some of the most respected female leaders in my local community and online in the entrepreneurial space. I know from experience that there’s no unicorn peak position that you reach where suddenly you wake up and say to yourself, I did it. I arrived at this status position where I fully believe in myself and nothing can shake me. That’s just not how it works.
I’m not saying that you can’t build confidence because you absolutely can, but let’s be honest and acknowledge that women can face backlash at any point in their career and at home, such as negative stereotypes, double standards, or discrimination. And in some settings, they’re even more likely to have that as they’re more visible or the higher up they go in their career.
It’s my opinion that you can transform and stabilize your confidence in three steps. Let me tell you what they are. First, you build awareness about the cultural waters you’re swimming in, which I covered in episode 003. So go back and check that out if you missed it. Understand the reasons why you may hesitate from showing up as your most confident self in different environments. Most people can be really confident in one setting or area of their life while struggling in another. That is very common and reflecting and building this awareness takes power away from the gender stereotypes that you’re being manipulated by and it puts the power back in you.
Second, at all levels of leadership, especially the highest levels, women need specific skill development and how to show up with strength and authority and deal with the backlash that will inevitably follow. Confidence is not presenting yourself in a way so you’re automatically received positively. It’s actually that you know that if you aren’t received well or if you fail at something that you know how to respond with control, grace, and empathy to reestablish your authority. Now for that, having a coach is really helpful because you can practice the skills and then you get immediate feedback and that helps you build an embodied confidence because you’ve been validated and it’s truly priceless. But I realize that not everybody can do that, which is why I’m going to share some of those strategies today and why I want you to think right now of two friends or colleagues that would enjoy this conversation and make sure to send this episode to them.
Third, is knowing how to influence your work culture and build support for yourself because we can’t change the systemic barriers at a personal level, but you can advocate for change and build your network with the people who support your vision. I shared the research in episode three from KDK and Claire Shipman’s book, The Confidence Code, which says that the confidence gap is somewhat of a myth.
Let me take a second and share with you their definition of confidence. Confidence, they say, is your belief in what you’re capable of. I love how simple that is. And studies have shown that women don’t believe they’re as capable as others in some situations, but that there’s no actual objective difference in their abilities. They’re just as smart, skilled, and qualified, sometimes more so than men. They doubt their abilities, the studies are showing, because they’ve been taught culturally, too.
In Attuned Leadership, I also believe that the confidence gap exists because women simply lack role models. The lack of gender representation has a massive influence on women’s beliefs because they literally have not seen women in higher-level positions or doing exactly what they want to do and doing that with success, sustainability, and satisfaction. Stepping into those positions as the first one in the organization or in your department or even in your family can feel very scary. And Kay and Shipman’s work clearly points out that the real culprit underlying a woman’s apparent lack of confidence is actually the fear of backlash that comes from both men and women alike.
Take a moment and ask yourself, given what I’ve told you so far, what are the situations or environments that create self-doubt or fear of backlash for you? What strategies have you tried to overcome the self-doubt that you feel have been helpful? And the last question for you to think about before we jump into the real meat of today’s show is how have you handled backlash that you’ve experienced in the past that you feel was constructive and demonstrated your confidence?
To start the conversation today, I want to address the last question I asked you, which is how you respond to backlash. And I’m going to share with you some skills for assertive communication techniques that you can use when you’re facing backlash to express yourself clearly, set boundaries, and address bias or discriminatory behavior in a really professional way.
The thing I teach my clients is that they need to be ready for the unknown. I’m going to use one of my favorite female athletes as a metaphor to make this clear. Serena Williams is a powerful tennis player. I imagine that before she steps on the court for a big match, she prepares herself emotionally and grounds her nervous system and reflects on the outcome she wants in the match. She knows her capabilities and she knows her objective, which is to win. That’s what makes her seem so unflappable. She feels the answers to these things in her body. She feels her confidence in herself, in her ability to fulfill her objective. And when a ball comes at her that she wasn’t expecting nine times out of 10, I believe it’s this prep work that allows her to respond with such precision and authority to dominate the court.
Okay, back to you now. Before you go into a meeting or whatever one of those situations are that you identified when I asked you to think of a time where you don’t feel as confident, I want you to do the same things as Serena Williams. Do you know how to feel grounded in your body? With clients, I like to find out their level of skill with this and then help them refine it. But let’s assume that you have no idea what I’m talking about.
Basically, when you feel acute stress, you aren’t going to be able to stay as focused or respond in an agile way because stress chemicals are now flooding your body. But you can create a sense of safety in your body by doing some fairly simple things. One of them is breathing, which I’m sure you’ve heard of. The way I want you to think of doing breathing practices for grounding is to make sure you’re breathing through your nose only and not ever through your mouth unless you’re exercising. And to breathe slowly. And here’s the most important part – Silently. I want you to have no sound from your breath at all. In fact, when you’re really activated and you really need to ground, I want you to put your fingers inside your ears and breathe slowly and so gently that you don’t hear it. It’s very, very helpful. Most importantly, I just want you to bring awareness to the fact that you are breathing.
Try it right now. Just notice what sensation is most prominent while you’re breathing and just put all of your body’s focus and attention and awareness there. Maybe you feel the air coming in and out of your nostrils or you feel the length of your breath as you breathe in and out or the movement of clothing on your skin as you’re breathing. It really doesn’t matter, but you just find something that’s an anchor for your attention and you’re focusing on that.
Breathing can be really powerful. If you’re able to, you can regulate yourself by breathing slightly slower and just elongating that inhale and exhale. Not in any way that feels like a stretch for you, but just slightly longer than normal.
The second thing that you can do to help yourself ground is to use physical touch. It’s really easy. You could do something like bring your hand, like the palm of your hand to your cheek and just rest your head in your hand or wrap your arms around yourself like a self-hug. And neither of these things are weird. You can do them and nobody will know that you’re doing anything. The self-hug could just be sitting with your arms folded over one another where you’re just aware that your palms are touching your belly or your ribs. Nobody knows. You feel the contact of your hand, which is usually warm. You can feel the weight of it and it just brings you out of that stress state where you’re starting to get stuck in your mind and instead brings you into the present moment into your body.
So if someone does something that catches you off guard or you feel triggered or anxious about anything, especially if it’s due to backlash, come back to these two really simple and reliable techniques to ground yourself.
Now let’s say that you develop a routine of doing these things before meetings. Great. Next, I want you to have a brag book. For me, this is actually a Google doc on my laptop, but I can also get it on my phone. It could be in your notes app or a physical journal where you’ve written or drawn things out. I want you to have a list of your achievements and the challenges that you’ve overcome. And it’s good to take a look at it on a regular basis. Let’s say every month or every quarter or make it a practice to update it. If you have an inner script that downplays your accomplishments, then you need to do this. So you have a way to counter it. It also primes you. So you’re ready with the facts of what you have accomplished when you need to respond to backlash.
That’s the prep work. Like what I shared with Serena Williams, I believe that in order to perform at your highest capacity, you need to have some preparation.
Now I want to talk to you about assertive communication and make sure that your skills are where they need to be. It’s really important that you focus on using I statements to share any of your thoughts or concerns. We know this, but when we’re triggered or we’re feeling anxious, it can be really hard to do that, especially if we’ve been attacked. It can really help you avoid sounding accusatory. For example, say, “I feel concerned when” or something like, “I believe it’s important to clarify that.”
The next thing is that it’s important to have a soft face while you’re communicating. Now I can hear the critics right now saying that women shouldn’t have to mold themselves to be likable in order to speak up. And I couldn’t agree more, but I also want you just to get a few experiences of speaking up successfully under your belt and your facial expressions matter. Having a grimace or as some people say, resting bitch face has its place, but it’s not how you want to start a conversation when you’re trying to get someone else to see your perspective. As they say down south, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.
Even in emotionally charged situations, you want to be calm and keep a steady tone of voice. Be as specific as possible about what was said, implied, or done related to the backlash so that you can keep the conversation focused on the actual problem and don’t kick off a debate about assumptions. You know how some people get defensive right off the bat?
Stay objective, which I know can be so hard, but this is where I really want you to shine. Express the impact the backlash has had on you, others, or the overall situation. If you can tie it to an organizational value that’s been publicly shared, all the better when you’re communicating, try to tie in the negative impact of the backlash to declining productivity, negatively impacting collaboration and not supporting inclusivity initiatives.
Let’s recap what I’ve shared with you so far for assertive communication. I’ve said that you start with, “I feel” statements, then share my experience of the situation was and use objective details and describe the impact, not just to you, but to the organization.
Next, you’re going to give other parties a chance to respond and no matter what they say, listen actively, try to show a genuine interest in their perspective by summarizing and asking clarifying questions and doing that helps disarm defensiveness. And while you’re doing this part, sit up, and have your arms open. I like to have my hands on my lap or on the table, either with my fingers clasped or my palms down, and make eye contact while they’re talking. You can focus on your grounding techniques if you need them, breathing, physical touch, and you can also scan your immediate field of vision. It’s calming to label what you see like a reflection or a shine across the desk, the shade of the wall color, the way the curtain hangs so that internally you might say to yourself, there’s a shine on the desk. It’s warm. The wall is blue. The curtains are white and they’re half drawn. I can see out of the curtain. You’re orienting yourself, which helps to calm your nervous system.
Next, make eye contact with a primary leader in the room. And after the person that you’re talking with has had their chance to share and you’ve done some summarizing and validating their perspective. Next, I want you to state your boundaries. Clearly tell them what is acceptable and what is not for you to feel like you’re getting respectful treatment. Keep your voice calm and don’t get snarky or defensive. This whole routine shows that you value your perspective and expect it to be respected. If you need to then look for common ground so that you can reach a resolution. Sometimes the best way to create change is to focus on achieving a mutually beneficial outcome whenever possible.
After a scenario like this, make sure you document it right away. Write a summary email that documents the points discussed, any agreements made or action items identified include the key players. And this really helps support future discussions.
An example from my leadership days was when I was going to represent the company at a conference where I would be the only female. Another leader, male leader made a comment that since I hadn’t represented the company before and didn’t have relationships with the other business owners that I shouldn’t be the main voice. So I grounded myself. I said, I want to clarify that I represent the company often. Recently, I did so on occasions X, Y and Z. I feel confident in my abilities and I bring expertise to the specific topics this event is focusing on. So I’m curious, what’s really coming up for you? Can you help me understand? He responded a little defensively and unable to evaluate his bias. If we’re honest, I validated parts of his perspective while also giving him a chance to clarify by making an assumption. I said, if I hear you correctly, you feel that this specific group of people isn’t welcoming to women leaders and you’re afraid it will have a negative impact.
It’s important that we find a way to call out as women when we’re facing backlash, the reality of what’s actually going on. We’re not going to giggle and pretend like we don’t realize the bias that’s taking place, but we’re also not really trying to make the other person feel like the villain if possible. And in my situation, the person I was talking to was able to admit that was a part of his underlying feeling.
When you state a boundary, the easiest way is to use one of these three phrases. I want, I need, or I expect. So I said, I want the chance to lead at this event because there’s no evidence that I won’t be successful. If there is objective evidence that there’s tension from one of the other business owners, another team member can co-lead with me halfway through the first day. Would you like to call one of the other business owners and ask them how it’s going on day one? And then together we can make a plan to make sure our outcomes will be met and make any necessary changes using real information. Then I sent an email to the primary decision maker, describing the conversation including how the compromise is aligned with the company’s focus to “help everyone shine.”
There isn’t a single avenue of your life that assertive communication skills like what I’ve talked you through aren’t helpful. Start practicing this in your personal life or in low-stakes work situations to develop your assertive confidence skill. And you’ll feel less fear of backlash, which then will allow you to show up with greater visibility and competence.
And every time you do celebrate yourself, no matter how small the success seems. The reason you have to practice celebrating yourself is because your brain has a negativity bias. It’s meant to always be scanning for danger and keep you safe from threat. If you lived eons ago and were a hunter-gatherer on the savanna, you’d be looking for large predators and would respond to every little sound.
These days, we don’t have that type of threats exactly, but your brain does want to protect you from other forms of negative experiences like embarrassment and disappointment. We’ve talked through how to identify the part of your inner script that may be holding you back in episode 002, so check that out if you haven’t.
Related to today’s topic of confidence, it’s key to understand how the brain works because, as I said in the beginning, you may be lacking women role models. So it’s scary to be the first person like yourself to be visible. It can feel vulnerable.
Visualization is the next skill I want you to develop as a woman leader because it’s reliable. It changes the brain. It changes the inner script. And to be frank with you, if we’re going to change the decades-long negative impact of white supremacy and patriarchy on women, we need to focus on body-based techniques. Cerebral-only skills are not going to be enough. The fascinating thing about your brain is that it doesn’t know the difference between just a thought and your reality.
As a Director of Rehab at a chronic pain facility back in 2009, I used to teach clients visualizations where they were able to do their favorite activities like getting on the floor with their grandkids, hiking, or gardening without pain, which is not something that they could do in real life.
The mind has such a profound impact on your body. It can actually stop the flood of stress chemicals that would normally show up with the fear of doing those activities. With my women leader clients right now, I have them visualize walking into a room, representing themselves as they desire, feeling prepared for it, and then seeing the world in a different way. They are able to walk out with a smile on their face. And you bet that this helps reduce the fear they may have of the unknown because, to some extent, they’ve already experienced it.
I tested this with both of my pregnancies and births of my daughters. I visualized both of their births that I called a “birth rehearsal.” And by the time my first daughter was born, I felt completely empowered and excited about the birth. To speak to the power of the mind-body connection, I had both of my daughters on their due dates, which is very, very, very rare. I had them naturally without any pain medicine and within 30 minutes of getting to the hospital and without any physical tearing. Now I know there’s a lot of luck involved in this story, but I really believe that my visualization practices helped me overcome the most dangerous part of childbirth, fear. Your visualization practice can help you build your confidence in equally meaningful ways.
Here’s an example. I taught an in-person workshop in April about how to build capacity. It was a room full of CEOs, founders, and incredible aspiring leaders. I was nervous because it was a new venue and it was new content that I hadn’t shared anywhere else. So I used this visualization as a part of my preparation. I identified the key milestones of the event, which for me were to walk to the venue and feel excited instead of nervous, and have everything ready before the first guests arrived for the AV to work without a fuss because we all need that in our favor. For me to feel connected to the audience and for them to engage back and to have an impact on how they think of their capacity and that they walk out with immediate confidence in the strategies I gave them.
The workshop was three hours long. It’s not like I visualized the whole thing, like three hours and practiced that down to every detail. No, I visualized the milestones that I just listed off of the event. And most importantly, I embodied the emotions that went with each visual, strong, energized, engaged, impactful. On the event day, it made all the difference because things didn’t go as planned. The AV was not set up when I got there. Guests arrived before I was ready, but I could easily shift into the embodied states that I had rehearsed, that I had visualized, and I did not get thrown off, not even for a second.
So when you have something coming up, you try this process, identify the milestones of the event or experience, decide how you want to feel in your body in each, and evoke that feeling state in your body as you see it in your mind’s eye. Make sure you intentionally include some of the skills I’ve mentioned already in your visualization, like sitting and standing upright, maintaining an open, relaxed stance, keeping eye contact, having friendly facial expressions, staying grounded by using your breathing, feeling your feet on the floor if you start to feel anxious, or labeling items you see in your visual field, summarizing and nodding in response to what others are saying and stating your boundaries and requests clearly, speaking concisely and without ambiguity.
Having a visualization practice like this that specifically addresses things in your life that cause self-doubt will give you the specific results you want of self-belief. And to do this, I recommend that you find a routine time of day to do it, like upon waking or before you go to sleep or at some place where you have a natural transition.
High performance as a professional woman is not really that different for a professional athlete. They practice and they use visualization to build confidence and to build body memory. And that’s just a fact.
Take a second and ask yourself if you’ve ever used visualization to help you reach your professional goals. And if so, was it effective? What specifically from the steps I’ve shared can you integrate to have even better results? And if you’ve never tried visualization before, what’s your initial response to hearing this? Are you curious to give it a try? What is one scenario in your life that you can identify where you think visualization would be helpful?
Okay, now on to the next skill about building a network. You’ve heard the statement that your network is your net worth. That’s because having advocates is so valuable. Having supportive colleagues, mentors, and allies who can guide you and give authentic feedback is critical for moving forward in your career, no matter what industry you’re in. These are the people that will provide validation and advocate on your behalf when you’re not even in the room and often without you asking. Do you feel like you have an advocate? Connect with them and ask for insights on how to build mutually beneficial relationships with leaders in the organization. Explain to them some of the stereotypes you feel are at play. Share with them what strategies you’re using and ask them if they have anything else to add or resources like books they recommend you look into. Often, these people are willing to be vulnerable and share their personal stories and how they’ve managed similar situations.
The next skill I want to share is about asking for feedback because, according to a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, women tend to receive less feedback on their job performance compared to men. The lack of feedback can hinder your growth because constructive feedback is essential for building your confidence and making improvements. Gender stereotypes and biases can influence how feedback is given and received. Since women are associated with more communal traits like being supportive and nurturing, their feedback may focus more on interpersonal rather than technical or leadership skills. Lack of feedback could also be to avoid conflict, emotional reaction, or because of an assumption that women are already aware of their areas for improvement. Of course, organizations should provide a culture of regular and equitable feedback for everybody. That includes training leaders in unconscious biases and encouraging open and transparent communication that focuses on performance. What I want you to consider is whether you’re getting valuable and positive constructive feedback about your performance currently. If not, go ask for it. Go to your peers, mentors, and trusted members of your network and tell them you want comprehensive feedback on your strengths and areas for improvement. Make sure you’re asking for any input on your communication, assertiveness, and body language skills like we’ve talked about if you think they could improve.
Then fill in the gaps. Based on the feedback you receive, look for mentors, workshops, and training to upskill and fill in those gaps. The research shows that generally there’s no difference between genders when it comes to achievements or ability. But obviously, if you personally recognize a deficit or area that you could work on, then you’ll benefit from getting support and learning the tools you need to move forward.
At the organizational level, here’s some things that you can do. Supportive work environments have a culture of celebration. So if you’re in a position of leadership, make it routine to have all members of a team highlight an achievement for the week or for the month. So there’s less of a disparity in women’s work being noticed because they may not feel as comfortable speaking up for themselves. You know, we’ve been talking about that fear of backlash. Create a culture where you genuinely welcome ideas even if they differ. Foster openness and curiosity about learning different perspectives and how they can help reach goals. Create a specific process for managers, directors, and leadership in general to provide feedback. What qualifies as good versus excellent delivery of a specific skill? What’s the process for giving constructive feedback to a team member so they see it as an opportunity and can get resourced to make the improvements that are needed? Make sure you follow up with that person and discuss any new challenges or needs that have surfaced while they’re addressing it. Make it known how your organization will address bias and ensure equal opportunities for everybody.
Provide mentorship for women. I find this very interesting. Studies show that women usually have less sponsorship than men because they aren’t invited to the golf outings or to meet up after work to watch the big game. From the very start of their careers, they’re always playing catch up in that relationship building factor. This is especially true of women in traditional work cultures or male dominant industries. Last but not least, promote diverse and inclusive role models in your organization to inspire everyone so they know that they can grow, succeed, and lead.
The last tip I want to give is to my female entrepreneurs listening to the show today. You may not be in a classic work environment, but the same factors I’ve described, every single one of them, will impact your confidence as you put yourself out there and promote your personal brand and your business. Get to know women succeeding a step ahead of you and ask them for feedback and guidance. Put your achievements out there more often than you think you need to. Continuously schedule it in the calendar if you need to, even if nobody’s asking for them. Put yourself in situations to make your voice and impact known and use these tips to make sure you have the confidence to help you see it through with finesse.
We have really covered a lot in this series. I want to take a second and just summarize once again everything we’ve talked about. This series has been about debunking the confidence myth and giving you practical ways to decrease your fear of backlash and increase your confidence. From a personal perspective, I’ve taught you how to improve your assertive communication skills, practice visualization for milestones of important upcoming events, how to build a stronger network that gives you feedback, how to ask for feedback, and at the organizational level, we’ve talked about how to create a culture that makes it easy and safe for women to celebrate their accomplishments regularly, the importance of streamlining feedback and your process and educating all of management on the influence of bias on feedback, and how to create specific supports for women leaders. And if you’re an organization that would like additional help with that, please reach out because I would love to come in and teach Attuned Leadership to your team. And lastly, the importance of promoting women to the top so others see them as role models.
I really hope you’ve enjoyed this conversation in the two-part series on the confidence myth. Using the strategies of Attuned Leadership, you can impact how you’re perceived, make your accomplishments recognized, and get the opportunities you deserve as a professional woman.
Thank you for listening. Please take a moment to subscribe to the show and make sure you don’t miss episode 005. It is going to be amazing. Come over to Instagram and send me a private message or email me at @drcrystalfrazee with any feedback or questions about today’s show. And as always, the most important way to show support for any podcast is to leave a review because it helps other people find the show and learn how much it can help.
This podcast is created for you. Being in your ears every week is not something I take for granted. Take care and let your confidence shine.