The Velvet Hammer Response to Inappropriate Remarks

5 min read

There is a great call-to-action quote by Madeline Albright. She said, “It took me quite a long time to develop a voice, and now that I have it, I am not going to be silent.”

What would the world be like for women if we pledged to speak up when a man confronts us with an outrageous comment? What if we said, “I will no longer be silent?”

One thing we hear over and over from women is that in the moment of an inappropriate remark, they are shocked into silence. Flabbergasted, stunned, disbelieving, processing what just happened. And quiet.

It is important to have an arsenal of responses to outrageous comments that women can draw upon in the moment. This helps speed a decision regarding the response that is most appropriate for the situation. Previous blogs have identified four key types of response:

  • “I Am Not Your Betty Crocker”
  • The Quick Comeback
  • Good Guys & Allies
  • Say Nothing & Do Something

A fifth response is The Velvet Hammer. Sometimes men don’t seem to understand that what they said or did was inappropriate, condescending, demeaning,or just plain stupid. A little education in a genteel, professional manner while carrying a great big imaginary hammer behind your back (just in case you pretend to use it) and standing your ground is needed and helpful for a man’s awareness and growth.

Here is a story about Jane, a business consultant working with her client, Peter, on a regional economic initiative. He commented to her that he had asked Bob, the CEO of a global company headquartered in the region, to chair this civic initiative. Bob had said no numerous times. Jane had a meeting with Bob on a different matter later that day and said she would ask him about it. In the meeting, Bob told Jane he would co-chair the initiative if she agreed to co-chair with him. She agreed, knowing what that probably meant—she would do the heavy lifting and he would supply his name and his board room.

At all the committee meetings, Peter praised Bob’s contributions. It was, “Mr. Chairman this and Mr. Chairman that,” totally ignoring Jane and her role as co-chair. She pulled him aside after one of the meetings asking if she could talk to him about something. He agreed. She pointed out that he was totally dismissing her and her contributions in front of the committee, which was very demeaning and showed lack of respect. She reminded Peter that if it wasn’t for her, Bob wouldn’t even be participating in the initiative, much less co-chairing it. He apologized saying he was totally oblivious to his actions. He thanked her for bringing it to his attention and going forward she got the respect she deserved.

This velvet-hammer approach works because Jane spoke up and addressed this issue head-on privately. She asked his permission to discuss it and did not embarrass him in front of his peers. She also graciously gave him the benefit of the doubt that maybe he wasn’t aware of his actions. He was able to save face and do better.

Rebecca is the CEO of a national women’s nonprofit that is devoted to advancing gender equity. Rebecca secured an extraordinary opportunity that would allow the nonprofit’s mission to reach more than 50 million new people—more than 100 times what any previous program was able to accomplish. Rebecca scheduled conversations with each one of the organization’s previous corporate donors to ask them to renew their financial support and consider a higher gift to advance this important mission, understanding that gender equity is a win-win for all.

Rebecca was in a virtual meeting with one of the corporate donors. There were executives from both organizations on the call as the supporter was considering new sponsorship levels. At one point in the meeting Rebecca began speaking, not realizing she was on mute. When she came off mute, Tom, the CEO said, “I wish we could work together to invent a button to mute my wife too!”

Despite the awkward silence that followed, Rebecca ignored the comment and continued speaking. She began explaining how meaningful the new opportunity would be to tens of millions of people. The CEO interrupted her saying, “I don’t want to waste anyone’s time. Your organization is small potatoes. You are a charity case but you can help us look good to other women.” He continued describing what he would like her organization to do, “If you can seat us at a table of women CEOs of major companies at your annual awards dinner, I will send our company founder who will charm their pants off.”

Still today, there are male-dominated company cultures that have thin veils of support for women when the organization’s true DNA is quite the opposite. Rebecca was stunned at the comments and the company’s view of women. But she was very clear where Tom stood and the company’s values and knew that if they were to proceed together, it would be with a purely transactional mindset.

Perhaps it’s worth a private follow up meeting with Tom to try the velvet-hammer approach. It’s one of our favorite responses because it works in most cases. It takes courage to call in your confidence and not be silent. (The big imaginary hammer behind your back helps.) Addressing a man’s outrageous comments in a private and calm way can open the door for a meaningful conversation that can highlight blind spots. In Rebecca’s case it could result in more funds for her nonprofit, a more respectful relationship, and a better company culture for Tom.

If you find yourself in this type of situation, try swinging that velvet hammer.

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