Thought Leadership| Women in Leadership
Hard Time Getting Your Voice Heard? These 10 Tactics are Game-Changers.
July 16, 2019
Meetings can feel like competitive arenas for many people, providing stressful reminders that they have trouble getting their voice heard. Fear of being judged or taking risks can make people hold back, creating spin cycles in their heads that make it that much harder to get into the discussion. And while the dynamics are often felt acutely by women, anyone can find themselves lacking confidence or hesitating to speak up.
These are tough headwinds to navigate, but from many of the hundreds of female CEOs I’ve interviewed over the years, and from my colleagues at The ExCo Group, an executive mentoring firm, I’ve heard many smart tips for getting your voice heard.
These ten strategies below are meant to provide a playbook of tactics. To be clear, organizations absolutely bear responsibility for creating more inclusive environments and not generating headwinds for their best and brightest. But the headwinds in corporate cultures are real and all too common, and may require adjustments in how you navigate them. The challenges people face in meetings will never go away altogether, but everyone has the capability to build and refine skills to get their points across. Why not try one of these techniques in your next meeting?
Hard Time Getting Your Voice Heard? These 10 Tactics are Game-Changers.
#1 GET INTO THE GAME QUICKLY
Marla Beck, the co-founder and CEO of Bluemercury, the beauty-store chain, said she learned in business school to get into the discussion early because participation was an important part of the grading system. “I learned to get into the conversation really early and really often,” Beck told me.
“Sometimes meetings can become very aggressive and sometimes people are just talking to talk. Sometimes you have to play that game. You have to talk to talk, because you want to have that air time.”
The longer you wait to join the conversation, the more the problems build. You can feel greater pressure to say something truly profound, and then you start thinking more about finding the right moment to jump into the discussion, rather than focusing on what people are saying.
Here’s a helpful tip that I learned from Kathy Murphy, the former CEO of Corning Gilbert who is now a mentor at The ExCo Group: When the meeting starts, put your elbows on the table and don’t let yourself take them off until you’ve spoken once. Your body language will also signal to others in the meeting that you are part of the conversation. It’s just about breaking the ice.
#2 BE SUPER-PREPARED
Your confidence will inevitably go up if you’ve done your homework, and you’ve thought about the chessboard of the meeting beforehand. Be clear in your head about the purpose of the meeting. Is it to make a decision? Solve a problem? Brainstorm? How are you going to contribute? Even if you’re not running the meeting, be clear in your mind about the goal and what you want out of it.
“Have your information, have your facts, have your numbers, have your point of view,” said Melanie Whelan, the CEO of SoulCycle. “If you get derailed in the conversation — if there’s a dynamic that maybe isn’t working to your advantage — you come back to, ‘What is my intention and what do I need out of this group?’”
#3 HEADLINES FIRST
Several female CEOs I’ve interviewed over the years have noted that women, in general, talk more expansively, whereas men just want the headlines. Granted, that may sound like stereotyping, but they say they have seen the patterns time and again. Their advice is to focus more on the quality rather than the quantity of what you say.
While there are steps that men can and should take to make sure women feel more included in conversations, women can do things to meet men where they are, said Niki Leondakis, president of The Wolff Resident Experience Company.
“Don’t lose who you are, but learn to speak the language,” she said. One difference she’s noticed is that women sometimes give more context than men. “Women tend to be more empathic,” she added.
“We tend to be more sensitive to how people are feeling and reacting. We are reading people’s faces and we’re responding to a lot of visual cues around us. Sometimes that causes us to give a lot of information, whereas men more often want to bottom-line it quickly.” She recommends that women learn how to speak directly and succinctly, and then fill in with more information as needed.
#4 LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Where you sit matters. Get to the meeting early and grab a seat toward the middle of the table, rather than being stuck on a corner, where your location can make you feel marginalized, both literally and metaphorically. Another bonus of arriving early is that you can make small talk with people as they’re arriving and getting settled, which will help make you feel like you’re already in the flow when the meeting starts.
#5 MANSPLAINERS, INTERRUPTERS AND CREDIT-STEALERS
We’ve all seen this insidious dynamic. A woman shares a smart idea with the group, and then somebody cuts them off, starts talking over them, “mansplaining” some concept in a condescending manner or repeating the idea as if it were their own several minutes later. It’s so commonplace that the practice was cleverly spoofed on the HBO show Silicon Valley.
What to do? Politely but firmly, you can simply say, “I wasn’t finished with what I was saying,” or, “Let me complete the point I was making here because I think it’s important.” Or you may prefer to handle these moments with a question: “May I continue with what I was saying?” Or, “Would it be okay if I continued my thought?”
By framing it as a question, it gently forces the person who interrupted you to give you back the floor. And make sure you look the person directly in the eye to let them know that you’re asserting your right to speak and that you’re someone who deserves their attention.
How to handle the idea stealers who parrot your idea as if it were their own? Again, there are ways to signal to the group what’s happening without being combative. You could say, “Should I take it that we’re aligned on that notion, based on what I said earlier?” Or, “It sounds like the two of us are in agreement on that point.”
Yes, this may feel dicey and uncomfortable to some people, so if it feels too pointed to do in the moment, find a way outside the meeting to ensure that others know the idea was yours or to make that clear in the next meeting. You don’t want to be overt about looking like you need credit, which may turn some people off. As with most aspects in life, subtlety and finesse go a long way.
#6 HAVE THE TOUGH CONVERSATION
But what if you have a colleague who’s a habitual offender of the misdemeanors above? The time may come for you to steel yourself for a tough conversation with him outside the meeting.
Jessica Herrin, the CEO and founder of Stella & Dot Family Brands, a social commerce company, shared with me a smart script for handling these one-on-one situations: “If you ever feel like you’re not being heard, I would go address the person who was talking over you and say, ‘Hey, listen, I bet you didn’t intend to do this but this is how I felt during the meeting. What would make you an even more valued partner for me is if we walked out of a meeting and we both felt heard.’”
She added: “I think you have to assume that the people doing it to you are not doing it because they’re nefarious, that they’re not doing it because they don’t value you and that they don’t have ill-intent. They just have habits that they need to break, and they’ll be on your side if you go up to them without an angry accusation.”
#7 BATTLING TOKENISM
If there is just one woman or person of color in a meeting, there’s a decent chance that at some point they will be called upon to speak, in effect, for their entire gender or race – “Will this appeal to women?” Or, “What will people of color think of this?”
A quick parry and riposte can help shift the focus of the conversation, and subtly point out the tokenism dynamic, by saying, “Here’s how I feel about it, but what I really think is we should go get some data.” If it feels comfortable to you, try some humor to point out the shortcomings of a broad-brush approach. For example, “I’d like to weigh in on what people who drive cars think about that.”
#8 NO MORE PREAMBLES
You’ve no doubt heard this advice before, but the behavior persists, so we’re going to repeat it here. Lose the deferential wind-up before you ask a question or make your point. “May I ask a question?” “I don’t want to disrupt anything, but…” “You may have already discussed this…” Be self-aware and make sure you’re not doing it. If you are, stop. You don’t need permission or to make excuses before you say something.
#9 QUESTIONS CAN BE BETTER THAN ANSWERS
Don’t think that making statements or providing answers are your only option. Sometimes the most powerful voice in a meeting can be the person asking the smart question that reframes the discussion. It’s a good bet that others might be wondering the same thing.
Here, too, homework helps. As you’re preparing for the meeting, think of three smart questions ahead of time. In this day and age, with so much disruption, a good question can have several times the value of a good answer. And in that moment, you will own the conversation.
#10 FLEX YOUR AUTHORITY
Get into a healthy mindset for the meeting. You’ve been invited for a reason and you’re there to make a contribution. Focus on the core points you want to make, and it will help quiet the distracting noise in your mind about what you’re not saying.
“I try to take a step back and think about the main point of what’s going on and how I’m feeling about what I need to say,” says Beck, the Bluemercury CEO. “I try not to let things get into my head or go with the flow of the meeting but instead make a point pretty quickly. I’m not one to dwell on things. When we’re younger, we think everybody is thinking about how you appear or how you look. The truth is, people aren’t thinking about you as much as you think. You just have to stand up for what’s in your head and what you believe.”