How to Speak Women with Susan Cottrell

How to Speak Women with Susan Cottrell December 29, 2023

How to Speak Women

How to Speak Women
Susan Cottrell

Susan Cottrell is an international speaker whose TEDx talk has 1.6 million views. OutSmart magazine called her “The Mother of All MamaBears.” The Advocate dubbed her “our favorite affirming matriarch.” She is a prominent voice for the LGBTQ community and their faith parents who have been featured on ABC’s 20/20, Nightline, and Good Morning America, on NBC News Out

I was lucky to create a Leaning Forward conference with all these women and their wisdom!

Leaning Forward is the title of a book by Karl and Laura Forehand about moving beyond the confines of organized religion. It is also the title of an online conference we have hosted for several years. This year, we decided to host a series of podcasts primarily to help us understand religious trauma and how to move forward. We are also hosting an online conference with the understanding that amplifying women’s voices is probably the most important component.

How to Speak Women

This is a conference powered by women but designed for men and women who want to heal from trauma and identify ways to do better in the future!
Susan shared How to Speak Women.

Preview (video and transcript below)

The complete version of Nikki’s talk is on YouTube! 

Video (transcript below)


How to Speak Women

by Susan Cottrell

Leaning Forward Conference: What Women Know about Trauma

I love conversations about deconstructing down to the bare bones of abuse and trauma to rebuild from a whole new paradigm. Before we can rebuild, we must pull down what’s already there and a lot has been done and there’s a lot more to do. So, I would like to talk especially to the men. But I’m not here to accuse or shame you or scare you or any of those things that you may be feeling. I understand that you feel this when there’s a reckoning for things that were never reckoned before.

My purpose is to challenge you to deconstruct enough to free the man inside of you that you want to be, and that you were created to be. And if it feels a little odd coming from a woman, that’s all part of the box that you’ve evolved into. Take consolation in the fact that men have been telling women forever! So, I hope you will bear up okay.

So that you’ll know where I’m coming from, here’s a little background on me. My husband Rob and I raised five kids in the conservative Evangelical Church for 20 years, and then two of them came out as queer. They were 20 and 16, at the time, and our whole world exploded, and all heaven broke loose. It did not feel like heaven at the time. It felt like hell because we’d been so conditioned in the church, which had no room for queer kids, and it felt so confusing and unfamiliar and bigger than we knew how to navigate. But we did plot a course and we clawed through a lot of broken theology because they were our kids and we weren’t about to sacrifice our kids on the altar of the church. It was the church that gave us a false choice between our children and God, but we navigated our way through to the true choice, which is between our children and God or the church. We chose our children!

We dug through the apparent hell which was only hell because it was unfamiliar. It was frightening and it had been made unfamiliar intentionally by Church theology, but when we broke through the false bottom of this little cramped box that was labeled God, we fell like a skydiver into the heaven of joy and freedom. We were like Jim Carrey, on The Truman Show, who didn’t know he was in a box, but once that box cracked open, it opened everything. And that’s what happened for us, not just around LGBTQ+ but also around race and gender and all the things that we didn’t know that we didn’t know.

I went to Seminary and became an ordained Pastor so I could hold my own with the big boys. I can do that, but alas, I am still a woman so many of them still dismiss me. Then Rob and I started our nonprofit, FreedHearts, to help parents wholly embrace their queer kids and to help those kids and adults to recover from church and cultural trauma. I talked about this more fully in my TED Talk, which has 1.6 million views. It’s at and I highly recommend it.

Today, let’s talk about the box around women and Trauma, and through that, we will see that men also have been put into a box. So, I came across a video of Meryl Streep in an interview to promote the movie, The Post. This was from 2017 and she’s there with actors Tom Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Brad Witcomb, and director, Steven Spielberg. They were being interviewed by the Washington Post film critic, Ann Hornady, and Meryl was talking about the very disproportionate representation of white men in positions of power. In the very male-dominated movie industry, and pretty much any industry, that imbalance inherently underrepresents other groups like women and other races, etc.

Meryl said, “If you walk into an all-male board meeting or it’s two women and nine men, it should feel weird. If it’s all white or nearly all white, it should feel weird,” she said. “If you run a company that’s serving the population at large, you’re serving 51% women. This is an issue of which every woman is aware. We are all aware of it and all men are not aware. So, it’s hard and that’s weird. it should feel weird if it’s up to the people who have the power to open the door to see it and to seed the power.”

I love this part! She said, “Women have learned the language of men, and have lived in the house of men all their lives. We can speak it, you know.” Then she said, “When you learn another language like French or Spanish, you don’t really. It isn’t your language until you dream in it, and the only way to dream in it is to speak it. Women speak men, but men don’t speak women. They don’t dream in it.”

I love how she put that and then Bradley Witcomb, who played the father in the movie Get Out said “I think what Meryl is trying to say…” and they fell apart, especially Ann and Meryl, because it was so funny. But women do speak men. They grow up learning it and it’s the only way to navigate the world. Men never had to learn women and they need to learn it. We need you to actively learn to speak women and people of color and LGBTQ, but I don’t want to overwhelm you. Besides, when you open one box, the others pop open if you’re paying attention.

So, you may feel already like you have demands on your time and your brain space and that you don’t need something else I understand but that’s just fear, like Truman in the movie, who fought his way across the sea which they’ve conditioned him to be terrified of, to the edge of the box, and up the steps. When he is just about to open the door over the threshold, he hesitates. That’s fear! But, on the other side is freedom because the biggest box that you’ll be freed of is the box of men that the world has shoved you into.

You may have already noticed that the box of what it means to be a man is too cramped. Take it from my husband and other men who have been on this journey, the box is so much smaller than who you were meant to be, and who you want to be. This will free you, plus we need you!

So, let’s talk about How to Speak Women. Consider this your Rosetta Stone to speak women. I boiled it down to 5 Lessons, but I could say so much more on each of these areas if we had more time.

Lesson 1 – Listen

Lesson one is to listen, and actively listen to what’s going on around you and to the stories of other people, specifically people who aren’t like you, who aren’t you. Everybody loves their friends; everybody listens to their friends. It’s kind of like listening to yourself, but what helps is to open up our hearts to people who aren’t like us, and whose stories are not familiar. They are the ones who could use the support, but you have to tune your radar to those stories, or you won’t know them.

It’s interesting that if you walk into the offices of most straight, white male pastors, they have books on theology, leadership, and organization. They don’t have the stories of trauma on those shelves of those on the receiving end of their Theology and Leadership and organization. These men, in positions of power, are trained to direct people, to fix people, and to tell them what to do or tell them what they should have done. But that’s not what they need. They need pastors to listen and hear their stories, to believe them, and to think intuitively about how they would feel if that were them. In Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, he says seek first to understand before you seek to be understood. That’s what listening does!

Women are good at listening with empathy and women will tell you that to feel heard feels like love because it is love! It’s respect, it’s being known. Not to be heard is not to be loved or respected and you must believe the stories that you’re told. The easiest thing in the world is to think, “Well, they’re exaggerating. It couldn’t have been that bad.” But how would you know that? The numbers of women saying, “Me too” are staggering. That’s the whole idea of the #metoo movement for women to speak up and to be heard and to be believed. The best thing you can do is say, “Wow, I had no idea, tell me more.”

Women rarely false report. It happens, but it’s rare. They’re far more likely to underreport, for a variety of reasons like being blamed and shamed and vilified and gaslighted by a culture that is only beginning to maybe take it seriously (after how many years?). When you don’t listen and believe someone in their story of abuse, you retraumatize them. I had a friend and this friend told me horrendous stories of abuse at the hands of several pastors from the age of four years old. They were horrendous and I kept saying, “Oh my gosh, that’s unbelievable!” I said it like three times, and I didn’t know that that was a thing about believing or not believing, but she said, “I need you to tell me if you believe me or not.”

I said, “Oh my gosh, yes I believe you.” So, I learned from her that it’s important to be believed. Not everyone does and I know it’s easier on your worldview to think, “Well, it probably wasn’t that bad” instead of saying, “This is a lot worse than I thought.” But when you listen to the stories and there’s so many stories, is it more likely that all these women are lying or that the men accused are lying, and especially if you think I could have done that or that could have been me or I did that, and it didn’t even seem that out of line at the time. But then for you to say to your peer who’s been credibly accused, “You don’t get the mic anymore.” That takes some courage and what we need is courage.

One more thing about listening. Men interrupt much more than women do statistically. It is woven into the culture. Women interrupt women more than they interrupt other men. I mean they’ve got to interrupt. They’ve got all the answers, so it requires a real effort to listen and not interrupt. Rob has improved so much in this. He doesn’t interrupt nearly as much as he used to. He listens well now, and he’ll even sometimes say, “Oh, I’m sorry I interrupted you, go ahead,” which I appreciate. And sometimes he will say, “Do you want me just to listen or do you want advice?” Because I also go to him for advice.

So, you can see that it’s very helpful, but what’s in it for you? It’ll make your relationships easier and so much sweeter and richer. It makes people around you feel loved and taken care of and it’ll expand you into a better human being. It’s impossible to fix things in a way that works for people until we truly listen and understand.

Lesson 2 – Speak Up

Speak up! I know I just told you to listen and not to interrupt, but what I’m asking for here is for you to speak up to other men. So, listen to people whose stories you don’t know. You don’t understand whose lived experience you don’t have. After listening, speak up from that illuminated perspective to other men because they need to hear that too. When they make a casual, demeaning remark about women, other races, gay people, and trans people, and this talk gets dismissed as locker room talk, that’s the time to speak.

Simple comments like that are not helpful jokes. They are not funny! Talking like that hurts other people. This is important! You won’t risk your standing, you’ll raise it. The idea is to break through the noise to bring consciousness to these unconscious comments that people just say without consciously choosing it. You’re in a position that women aren’t in. They don’t tell those jokes in front of me. You can be a secret ambassador. I wish we had a secret ambassador ring.

Do you want to be a hero to those who could use a hero? Speak up! If you hear something, say something, and speak up when you see people. When people say, “I feel seen by you,” that’s a thing. Make a point to see people you don’t normally see as human beings.

I was an adolescent, and we were going to dinner at a cafeteria, like Luby’s. It was my dad, my sister, and me. We sat at the table, and I took my food off the tray, you know as you do, and I put the tray on the next-door table. There was a woman there, a middle-aged employee, busing the table. My dad and sister looked at me and said, “You should say, ‘May I give you this tray? Thank you.’” They wanted me to acknowledge her. I didn’t know that, but I’ve never forgotten it. Later, in seminary, a classmate said “Hi” to me every day by name and I just didn’t register it. I mean I said “Hi” back, but I didn’t say it with the same interest and alacrity that he did. He was of a race that I don’t normally really key into. It’s a horrible thing to admit, but it’s true and that was a turning point for me. That’s when I started seeing people from a broader viewpoint.

See the people who serve you every day, the valet, the waitress, and the housekeeper. Did you know that you’re supposed to tip the housekeeper? How many of us do that and see women as people? Women generally see the impact on the person instead of the impact on the plan or the agenda. That’s what we build all this stuff for. Isn’t it for the people?

The phrase “to lay down your life” for someone is interesting. We think of it as dying for them, which is kind of a one-shot deal. But it doesn’t mean that. It means to lay down your life, as you go (your plans, your agenda). To sacrifice for the benefit of others like parents who allow their theology to shift so they can be the parents their child needs. It means that you’re not insisting on your way all the time or always having to win. If there has to be a winner, there has to be a loser, and men do much good in the world if they don’t always have to win. If they think in terms not of winning but of win-win, then more of us benefit from their decisions and actions.

Lesson 3 – Open Up to Your Emotions

Men have emotions they’ve just been made to sublimate them. The only emotions men are allowed are anger and “fine.” It’s funny that we have this trope that when a woman says, “I’m fine,” she’s not fine. Haha, big joke! But men do that because they have not been allowed sad despondent, empathetic, or even really, excited. They are not allowed to feel scared. “I’m not scared, you’re scared.” Forget about tears unless you want to be that guy. “I’m not crying, you’re crying.”

It starts so early and so completely, and it crushes a boy’s heart so that he walls it over and I think men have very tender hearts which are easily as tender as women. But they are forced into walling them up for their safety. In the process, they lose access to their heart, as much as those around them lose access. When Rob was young, some boys came up to him and kicked him in the groin. He laughed because what was he gonna do? It hurt, but he laughed, and that’s a version of “fine.” He already knew his options were limited.

Humble the Poet said, “What I learned for myself as a man is that when somebody is telling me a problem and I want to solve it, it’s not because I care about their problem it’s because their pain is triggering my pain and I want to shut them up. Instead, when someone is feeling pain, I’ve learned that empathy is just feeling the pain and sitting in the pain with them.” To lean into your emotions when you’ve learned to block them off can feel like it’s going to be a free fall. But it’s not, it’s a freedom fall. It will round you out and make you happier and much more of a joy to yourself and others.

Do you remember ever taking an elective in school that had nothing to do with your chosen career, and you loved it? These emotions are electives that open up your world and you’ll find that they are essential. Try it with your trustworthy people and then just keep opening up. It will lift some weight off your shoulders, and you’ll be very glad that you did.

Lesson 4 – Tone Down Your Anger

Men, please tone down your anger. We know you have legit things to be angry about—so do we! But I’m not sure you know how your anger is received and the people in your care are not the cause of your anger. If you interrogate your anger, you’ll identify fear, grief, regret, and a desire for control and expectation that the culture has foisted upon you. It is part of the package of manhood in America that you need to be in control at all times. We women are as bad as anybody else for placing those expectations on you. We bought into the idea that you’re going to fix it. But we’re scared too!

So, we may need to be open to you having a heart-to-heart with your partner, with those you love, and ask for support to take the pressure off so you can be who you are, We think that if we could just make things work the way they’re supposed to we wouldn’t have to get angry. But it doesn’t go that way. We need to stop getting angry and things will work a lot better.

We were watching America’s Funniest Home Videos and a boy was sitting in his high chair asking for more pancakes and his mother said, “We don’t have anymore.” And the boy said, “Oh man are you kidding me? Come on!”  We were surprised by this response because it was just pancakes. “Oh man, are you kidding me?” the boy continued. Now if it’s disturbing to see that, seeing it in a 5-year-old boy, picture it in the man he’s going to become. Imagine him talking to his wife and his children, his employees, the pizza delivery guy. This boy did not make this up. He saw it somewhere, probably in his house. Because if this behavior were alien to his house, the parents probably would have responded differently. But they were laughing!

I know anger and I’ve had to deal with anger of my own in the past. I didn’t think I had any anger or any temper at all until I had kids. I always vowed I would never be like my dad. Then I had kids and that anger emerged and I think it comes from unrealistic expectations. I think I thought I’d be a better mom, or it would be easier, or something. I’ll be more natural, I don’t know. But it is not pretty in men or women, and it took some years of hard work to change that volatile anger. That kind of rage is devastating to everyone around especially those who are smaller or have less power than you–like the children and the women in your life.

So, here’s a challenge for you. Get down on the floor as I happened to do the other day to play with my grandbaby. Look up at those people who will seem like giants. Ask your partner to stand over you and yell or just talk sternly while you’re sitting on the floor. Try it and you’ll see what I mean. It will impact you to see that anger and nip it. Listen for it in other men and speak into it there too. For everyone’s well-being and safety, the partners, and the children that you protect will thank you. You will live and engage more authentically and massively reduce your stress.

Lesson 5 – Don’t Abandon Us

Please don’t abandon us. We need you to engage and to stay engaged. Think collaboration, partnership, and building together. Women do this. They think holistically. It’s probably both nurture and nature, but there are studies around it that affirm that men tend to look at the parts and silos and women tend to look holistically. There’s a famous experiment called the Heinz Dilemma. The male said that it’s like a math problem with humans and you just move people around, while the women were thinking holistically of the impact on the whole and not just the one part. It was huge a hugely impactful study.

Did you know that the countries that did the best in the pandemic had one common factor which was women leaders? These heads of state talked to others. They said what worked and what didn’t. They weren’t in a power struggle, each trying to be the domineering country. They helped each other. Women know how to do community. Men know how to do Lone Ranger and superhero and it’s hurting us all! I don’t blame you. It was conditioned into you. How many action-hero movies have you seen?

Men are good at fixing things too. That’s a big strength and when I’ve had a lot of feeling talk with my friends or I’m in a Whirlpool of my own emotions, I love when my husband says, “Okay this is what you do. We’ll do this and this and this.” I love that it’s such a balance to me, but that’s what it has to be a balance. We have to work together on this, not just one or the other. In our hyper-masculinized, uber-conservative culture, you men were conditioned to place unrealistic expectations on yourself. You were conditioned to take it all on your shoulders, and it’s crushing you! Then you’re weighed down with the weight of the world on your shoulders and you don’t have time to listen to someone’s stories to find out the impact of your actions or inactions on those in your care. How can you? You’ve got enough on your plate already.

Let us share the burden with you. We need each other. We both have massive skill sets, so let’s work together! We need both in community and we need you. Community. No more Lone Ranger because when it doesn’t work, you abandon the people who need you. Here’s what I mean. We used to work with families of kids with cancer. The mothers were always there for their kids but only about half the dads were still in the family. The other half went AWOL after the diagnosis. it was stunning to see these women suddenly dealing with a life-threatening diagnosis of their children and the father’s abandonment of the family. Rob and I talked about that a lot because it was heartbreaking. Men are fixers. In their world of money, accomplishment, families, and opening jars, they fix everything. So, the diagnosis comes down they can’t fix, and they leave. You’ve seen how men get overwhelmed and leave, like a young dad who can’t handle his first family. Maybe he was too young to have a baby, he’s in way over his head, he doesn’t know how to be a father and a husband, and so he leaves. Then he grows up and begins another family and he’s a great husband and father, but his first wife is still raising the child alone because no one helped her.

John Lennon did this when he left his first wife Cynthia and his first son, Julian. Then he grew up and became a great husband and father to Yoko and Shawn. This is not news to you that men do this. I mean First Wives Club.

So, there’s a lot on our plates. I want to summarize because I kind of gave you a lot.

  • Number one is listening.
  • Number two is speak up to other men.
  • Number three is open up to your emotions.
  • Number four is tone down your anger.
  • Number five is we need you men, don’t abandon us.

We need you to help clean up from all the trauma and the sexual abuse that comes with a misogynistic male-dominated culture. You didn’t cause this alone, but men did. So, I know it can feel overwhelming, just like a child’s cancer. Some men run, but I think that’s exactly what happens with the trauma. It’s overwhelming, so what are you going to do?

Don’t just go study Theology and Leadership because you don’t know how to deal with this. We need you to deal with this. We need you, so don’t abandon us, please. We need you in community to help us heal what’s wounded, and to rebuild what’s been broken. I promise you there is life and joy and healing and freedom on the other side of this. It is more glorious than you can imagine.

Let’s do it!

To see other speakers and a few extras, access the following link:

The videos below are from the conference held on December 9th. They are free to access, but please consider donating to help offset expenses using the scan below.
Karl Forehand is a former pastor, podcaster, and award-winning author. His books include Out into the Desert, Leaning Forward,  Apparent Faith: What Fatherhood Taught Me About the Father’s Heart, The Tea Shop and Being: A Journey Toward Presence and Authenticity.  He is the creator of The Desert Sanctuary podcast and community.  He is married to his wife Laura of 35 years and has one dog named Winston.  His three children are grown and are beginning to multiply! You can read more about the author here.

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