Communication Strategies

to Fight Intimidation

In an early post, I wrote that stuff worth doing is hard. The inevitable side effect of doing something hard, is pain.  Sometimes the pain is good, like soreness after a workout that lets you know you’re getting stronger. Sometimes the pain is bad, like an injury that will set you back. When it comes to public speaking, there are two types of intimidation; one can be good for you and one can be bad. Each has its own communication strategies. If you’d rather not read, I gave a talk on this to the Austin Women in Technology. See Here is a summary of the talk.

Healthy, Situational Intimidation

According to, intimidated is when we are “made to feel timidaffected or held back by feelings of fear or timidity”. This is when, no one is trying to hurt us. I call ths Situational Intimidation. We are just dealing with stressful situations like your typical public speaking engagement. It can feel especially stressful if we are the only woman in the room, or the youngest person, or the newest employee, or any number of reasons we feel stared at or singled out. Here are some communication strategies to make us appear more confident:

Listen ActivelyMake sure you are on topic
Say something unique and constructive
Reference a previous speaker if possible
Get Their AttentionEnsure the receiver is getting your message by creating interest, conveying importance, and even stating your need for their attention
Don’t ask permission to speak
Put your Bottom-Line Up Front (BLUF)Get to the point immediately and be direct – don’t sugar coat the message It is your responsibility to focus your message, so the receiver is certain about what they are supposed to do or know
Clear is KindGiven the choice between a simple word and a long word, with no difference in the meaning, use the simple word
Avoid jargon and acronyms
Keep it Short and Simple (KISS)Written – If you need more than 3 sentences to make a point, call a meeting
Verbal – Speak in bullets or short sentences
Be PreparedFor meetings, review your notes from the previous meeting If there is data to be presented, have it ready
Look AliveSit up straight, make eye contact, avoid fidgeting
Slow DownSpeak with intention
Talking too fast will make you seem nervous
Avoid Minimizing WordsAvoid saying “just” or “only”, i.e. “I just want to…”
Avoid apologizing, e.g., “Sorry to bother you…” or “Sorry, but I made a mistake in my last email…”
Recover QuicklyWe all make mistakes, and we all have bad days
Think like NPR… after you say the wrong word, just say “rather, [correct word] …” and move on gracefully
Admit You Don’t KnowThe smartest people are never afraid to say “I don’t know”
It is much better to get back to people than to be wrong
Be GenuineDon’t try to be funny if you’re not funny
One caveat, don’t alienate anyone
Know your audience and try to use examples that resonate with everyone
Know Your RoleUnderstand why you were invited to participate
Sometimes it is ok to be an observer or listener
Avoid DistractionsPut yourself on do not disturb mode
If you can’t, like family member is in the hospital, inform others beforehand

Over time, speaking up in meetings and giving presentations should get easier and easier. As you practice, and use the above strategies, you will feel less intimidated and more confident.

Unhealthy, Intentional Intimidation

According to, the legal term for intimidation is “intentional behavior that would cause a person… to fear injury or harm… Threat of harm generally involves a perception of injury… physical or mental damage…”. I call this Intentional Intimidation. This is when a person (or multiple people) really try to rattle you. This is when the bullies start to yell or the a-holes attack you personally. This is when we must think bigger to keep our dignity over all else.

Bullies are generally trying to get their way through strong arm tactics rather than using good rational decisions. We must resist the urge to engage in a fight with a bully. Arguing can have bad consequences.

  • You could lose
  • You could appear petulant, or heaven forbid, cry
  • No one remembers who started the fight
  • They think it is ok to talk to you this way

Staying calm can have great consequences

  • You could win
  • People see how well you handle stress
  • Everyone knows who tried to start a fight
  • Even if you lose, you’ve maintained your dignity

Instead of fighting, try practicing overcontrol.

  • Inhibited emotional expression – Get stone-faced
  • Overly cautious and hypervigilant behavior – Chose every word extra carefully
  • Rigid and rule-governed behavior – Be an HR poster child
  • Aloof and distant relationships – Remember who is allowed to affect your feelings

Acting in an overcontrolled manner or resisting the urge to fight is ok in small doses, but it is really STRESSFUL. After it is over, breathe, vent, cry, or whatever! Make sure you are doing as well on the inside as you appear on the outside (read Burnout by Emily and Amelia Nagoski). Complete the stress cycle! If you deal with more unhealthy, intentional intimidation than healthy, situational intimidation, you may need to make a change.

‘You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks.’ — Winston S. Churchill

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