THE BLOG

Who You Calling Bossy?

05/07/2015 01:32 pm ET | Updated May 07, 2016

"If you don't like what's being said, change the conversation."
-- Don Draper, Mad Men

When I speak for women leadership programs, I'm often asked, "Why are women so catty to each other?" My response?

"In my opinion, every time we ask or answer that question, we perpetuate that negative stereotype."

It's time to change the conversation. Here's how we can do that.

If someone says, "Why are women so catty to each other?" or any variation on that theme, do not repeat the unwanted word. Every time we do, we imprint the very thing we don't want. It's like telling kids, "Don't run around the pool." What are they going to do? Run around the pool.

Instead say, "You know what I've found? I've found women to be amazingly supportive of each other. In fact..." and then share an example of how a woman has mentored or championed you. The only way to reverse this unflattering stereotype is to stop complaining about it and create a new story about how women support and celebrate each other.

Want another way to answer the "catty women" question? Quote Saturday Night Live alum Amy Poehler. A reporter asked her, "Are you bothered by bossy women?"

Amy said, "I just love bossy women. It means somebody's passionate and engaged and ambitious and doesn't mind leading." Go Amy.

Is someone calling you "bossy?" Whatever you do, don't deny or defend their accusation.

Think about it. If someone says, "You women are so emotional", and you say, "We are NOT emotional," now you are! Denying a negative comment lets accusers know you're sensitive about this issue. They'll continue to bring this up because they know it gets under your skin.

If someone calls you "bossy," "controlling" or anything negative, you have three options:

1. Ask: Put the conversational ball back in their court by asking, "What makes you say that?" Giving them an opportunity to explain what they mean often reveals the real issue. Perhaps they'll say, "You took over that meeting and you weren't even the chair." Ahh. Now you can address the facts instead of their attack. "You're right, I did start the meeting. We'd been waiting for a half hour, and I know how busy everyone is, so I thought it was in our best interests to start working through the agenda."

2. Embrace: Pull an Amy Poehler. Instead of being embarrassed by an accusation, embrace it. A friend who works for a tech company was once called "pushy" by a male co-worker because she wouldn't give up on her goal to be a project lead. Instead of backing down, she smiled and said, "You're right, I am actively lobbying for this. I have the experience and expertise, and I'll do a good job. If it takes being pushy to put myself in the running, so be it."

3. Elevate: Elevate the conversation. Someone called me "emotional" the other day and I said, "Thank you. I used to be the girl who didn't cry at movies. I was always logical and rational. I could detach from anything and see it objectively. Then I was fortunate to have children, and I discovered feeling emotion is one of life's greatest gifts. So thank you." End of issue.

How about you? Is there someone in your office or organization who seems to delight in putting you down? Do they toss out accusations to see if you'll react? Next time, don't deny or defend... Ask, embrace or elevate.

Use this as tongue fu tips -- martial arts for the mind and mouth -- and you'll soon discover that people can't get under your skin if you don't give them a shovel.