Back in the days when I volunteered for a Colorado mountain rescue team as both a rescuer and the team’s public information officer, my teammates often commented that I was “too intense.” I was trying to transform the role I held, taking it from traditional order-taker and reporter-of-news to a more progressive, proactive maker-of-news, and that involved dragging us into previously unexplored territory like social media and interactive public education programs. I was passionate about the changes I saw as necessary for the team, and my approach was appreciated by some but resisted by a crucial, influential few. For one fellow board member, it was such a problem that he thwarted me at every opportunity and I was never able to forge any kind of workable relationship with him.
One night I took a bottle of wine over to a female teammate’s house and asked her, honestly and directly, for specific feedback on why I was having so much trouble. She couldn’t–or wouldn’t–tell me. She just kept repeating, over and over, that I was too intense. I have wondered for years whether she was uncomfortable sharing specifics with me, or whether she really just couldn’t put her finger on the problem. Either way, I blamed her for not seeing the gender-related double standard she appeared to be perpetuating. When a man shows passion for the mission he is visionary, hard working and assertive. When a woman does the same, she is out of control, overly emotional or possibly even a bitch. I have never been able to think about this issue without hearing the voice of Sigmund Freud in my head, prescribing drastic interventions for the problem of “female hysteria.”
An excellent article by Kathryn Heath and Jill Flynn, How Women Can Show Passion Without Seeming Emotional, approaches the topic constructively, describing it as a “lost in translation” issue. “We heard from men that unchecked emotion by women makes their ideas less convincing and compromises their credibility, because it focuses attention on style rather than content.” Instead of railing about the injustice of the double standard, the authors focus on practical suggestions for women:
- Plan ahead for your meetings, practice your delivery, and generate support for your cause so people won’t be taken by surprise when you express passion about an issue. Use passionate language but strive for a more neutral tone of voice.
- Know your audience and speak their language. Do you need to communicate with a bunch of number crunchers or engineers? Get your facts and figures in order and make sure to make your case with data in addition to passion.
- Use other tools of influence. Persuading with creativity, previous experience, storytelling or logic might be the right approach for a particular situation. Be versatile and pick the right approach.
Passion is contagious if wielded skillfully. While it is certainly true that men need to recognize and seek to overcome their biases, we women must focus on what is within our control.