With the onslaught of media about sexual harassment and abuse, I want to make sure women (and girls) have the language skills they need to stay in control during uncomfortable situations. Too many women haven’t had the benefit of this kind of coaching, and unfortunately an untrained response may intensify the situation, adding fuel to the fire. Most importantly, everyone needs to know they don’t have to engage in a conversation that makes them uncomfortable. There’s a better way.
Take for example, a local male colleague of mine. It’s common knowledge that he stands a little too close, demands hugs and wants to pull women onto his lap.
At business and social events where he frequents, I’ve seen many women concede. It could be that they like him and have no problem with his advances. Or perhaps they feel compelled to comply even though they don’t want to.
If the latter is true, that’s a problem for me. And I always ask if they want my advice.
Those who say, yes, I tell them …
First, clearly and considerately state your boundaries. Say, “My preference is for you to stand a little further back. If I’m ready for a hug, I’ll let you know.” We don’t need to make excuses for wanting our own personal space. And we don’t need to let anyone into that space without our consent.
Second, rinse and repeat. Don’t let him mistake your intentions as humorous. If he acts like you’re kidding, tell him again just as confidently. Repeat kindly until he gets it.
Finally, if he won’t take nice for an answer, be firmer and then leave.
Sometimes, you can’t leave though. Sometimes it’s your boss … it’s your livelihood …
A female client of mine told me about a dinner she attended with a new male boss. Here’s what happened when they first met at a hotel during a convention.
She sat down at the restaurant table and the first words out of his mouth were, “So, tell me … Do you like to party?” She immediately felt unsettled and wasn’t sure how to respond. She eventually stammered out, “Well, I like to have a glass of wine now and then, but I wouldn’t say I like to party.”
I told her a different response to his awkward question would have allowed her to regain control of the conversation and steer it to a more comfortable topic. My suggested response: “I haven’t given that much thought. What I have given thought to is tomorrow’s presentation. And I have a couple questions for you.” Women, if a conversation makes you uncomfortable, disengage from it. You are not obligated to answer every question that is asked of you.
Hugs don’t always have sexual overtones. And the question “Do you like to party?” may have simply been a well-meaning invitation to a company-sponsored evening event.
Of course, these words are not the silver bullet to the pervasive problem of sexual harassment. My goal here is to help women more confidently manage those situations when someone crosses the line of what’s socially acceptable. Words alone may not stop an aggressive attack. It isn’t that easy. But I do hope it makes women feel more powerful during awkward advances.