Learning From Gwyneth Paltrow’s Working-Mom Backlash

Gwyneth Paltrow inadvertently sparked a global working-mom revolt with her comments about how hard it is to juggle motherhood with the lifestyle of a globe-trotting superstar actress: “I think it’s different when you have an office job, because it’s routine and, you know, you can do all the stuff in the morning and then you come home in the evening,” she told E! “When you’re shooting a movie, they’re like, ‘We need you to go to Wisconsin for two weeks,’ and then you work 14 hours a day and that part of it is very difficult. I think to have a regular job and be a mom is not as—of course there are challenges—but it’s not like being on set.”

It was a Marie Antoinette moment for the Sheryl Sandberg age, but it didn’t have to be. Bill McGowan, a communication coach and the author of Pitch Perfect: How to Say It Right the First Time, Every Time, explains how to avoid going viral for the wrong reasons:

What was your reaction when you saw Gwyneth’s comments about how working mothers with office jobs have it easier?

One of the key components of successful communication was seriously lacking here, and that’s empathy. It’s very easy for someone in her position who leads a life of privilege to become completely out of touch with what just about everyone else goes through on an average day. People read that, and they immediately think that she is so far inside that Hollywood-elite bubble that she lost touch with the people who go see her movies.

Do high-level business executives face the same problem?

The best communicators are the ones who work really hard at putting themselves in situations where they’re side by side with their consumers. Whether it’s a CEO of a food company who visits the supermarket on a Sunday to watch how his customers buy his products, or a female executive who goes into the store and studies the foot traffic—those are the people I find are able to speak from their customers’ standpoint. It’s always important to put your customers first in your communication: What problems are they trying to solve, and how does your product make their life easier on a daily basis.

How has the proliferation of Twitter, YouTube—the Internet in general—made this more difficult?

This is one of the big points I wanted to make in the book. Because we’re relying more on digital forms of communication, our skill at verbally communicating is eroding, because we’re just doing it less. Like any muscle in the body that you don’t use, it’s going to get weaker. We all know the colleague who e-mails us even though they’re five desks away. I think that speaking voice-to-voice is almost an afterthought, and as a result we aren’t as skilled at it. Use it or lose it.

What can be done to avoid embarrassing oneself?

People don’t do enough preparation prior to high-stakes communications situations. If you’re going into a meeting with your boss, and the meeting is on topic X, maybe you don’t think you’ll have to be present at this meeting—you’re just a spectator. But don’t assume that. If I’m called on for my opinion on something, what am I going to say? Even something simple, such as calling a customer service operator—anticipate what the other person’s going to say and how you’re going to respond. It’s very simple: The more you prepare ahead of time, the better its going to be. The more you wing it, the more opportunity there is to make a mistake.

This reminds me of billionaires complaining about being persecuted, or bank CEOs saying they’re doing God’s work.

Nobody wants to hear about that—stop complaining. Empathy trumps narcissism when it comes to communication. And if you’re in the 1 Percent crowd, definitely don’t whine.

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