There are lots of reasons why women tend to stay quiet in meetings--our desire for harmony and to be liked, our fear of being wrong, our inner insecurities, etc. We all know we need to speak up more and many of us have worked hard to overcome that inner Greek chorus that influences our behavior in meetings and our ultimate success.
But, even when women do speak up, how can they make sure they are heard? We all know the stories of the man who repeats what a woman has previously said and then is applauded by all for his new idea. It is a common refrain. We need strategies not only to encourage us to speak up but to speak up in a way that makes sure we are heard. How do we make our speech more likely to be heard?
So here are some of my thoughts and ideas:
1. Make sure your pattern of speech is straight forward and firm. Use your deeper voice and never end a sentence with an inflection (which of course suggests uncertainty).
2. Use your body and your body language to communicate your importance and relevancy when you speak. First, appearance is important. Dress conservatively, but with an emphasis on being seen. Color helps and we all know the value of that red suit. Consider the others in the meeting. If they are dressing casual, you might want to consider dressing more formally. If you feel that you are not being heard, don't hesitate to raise your hand (it communicates that you have something important to say) or to stand up before you speak and demand the floor. Sometimes, a strategic trip to get coffee while speaking can result in others paying more attention to what you have to say.
3. Act assertive and assured. It is about attitude. Don't be afraid to grab authority and keep it in any situation. I know that as women we face the issue of being perceived as "pushy" or "aggressive" or whatever word is used to describe "that aggressive female." But we don't need to let others define us or decide how we should behave. For too long, this characterization has resulted in weak-kneed women silently accepting their fate. So, are we less effective because we act assertively? I don't think so. Once our naysayers get over the initial need to characterize and demean us because of our "questionable" behavior, they tend to listen to us -- especially when we have good ideas and thoughts and have done our homework on the issue.
4. It is ok to interrupt. But if you interrupt be short and direct in what you say. Don't say "I think...." Instead, suggest that your work or analysis suggests a different conclusion or action. "I reviewed X and determined Y." It is always good to reference the work you have done on the subject as part of your interruption. It gives you credibility. Your conclusion should be based on your work not on your opinion.
5. It is ok to repeat and restate. We all know that others do this in meetings. Don't be afraid to repeat someone else's idea (always good to give them credit) and restate the position. But say it in a compelling fashion with a direct approach. (See No. 1 above).
6. Find and cultivate your allies. Allies are so important. They will reinforce what you say in a meeting. They will help to make sure you are heard. We should seek out and nurture our allies (whether male or female). By working together, we can make the work place more diverse and more accepting of our differences.
7. Encourage others and reinforce. We will all be heard more if we acknowledge and applaud those women who speak up. We all will have more opportunities if we don't demean other women when they speak up. To your younger cohorts, make an effort to encourage them to participate and demand to be heard and recognized. Pushing through any obstacles for others will help us all be more effective.
Remember: this is evolutionary. Change is inevitable. But we need to encourage it and make sure we do whatever is necessary to make our voices heard.
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