Jen M. Bailey
This two-part series is designed to help women gain confidence speaking up (Part 1) and develop skills to effectively navigate obstacles and conflict in professional meetings (Part 2). Part 1 is available for free on the Blog. Members can access Part 2 via a password protected gateway.
Part 1: Getting to the Table
Women still struggle to be heard in the workplace especially those who work in traditionally male-dominated industries. You may not always feel the need to speak up if things are going swimmingly, but when your hackles are raised by conditions, culture or questionable strategy, how can you speak up and be heard?
First things first, let’s talk about the risk versus reward. Is it worth it? When should you speak up? Short answers are yes, early and often. Once I was in a (philosophy) class completely outside of my academic comfort zone (environmental science) in which there were three women and a dozen men. Motivated at first by fulfilling the participation grade requirement, I began speaking up in class early in the semester. When I realized I was the only woman who was doing this regularly, I kept it up. Often, I spoke up even when I wasn’t sure.
Was I sometimes embarrassed and noticeably blushing while talking? Yes.
Did I get better with time? Yes.
Did speaking out earn me a better grade? Yes.
Did the other participants often ask my opinion about things as the year progressed in and out of class? Yes.
Was I remembered by at least one other person as the “girl who spoke” after the class? Yes.
Even though it put me a little bit outside of my comfort zone, speaking up about subjects that I was learning about (read: not an expert on) enabled me to gain: an established seat at the table, respect from the room as a purveyor of opinion and potential collaborator, as well as notice and accolades from my superiors (a “better grade”).
Workplace meetings have a lot of the same elements from the participatory classroom: You have an agenda, participants choose the direction of dialogue and yes – in a way, you get graded on participation. We have all been in meetings where someone gets away with saying absolutely nothing the entire time. Sometimes that person is called out and asked to participate, sometimes not. In a male dominated conversation, women sometimes feel it’s safer to take the role of wallflower than risk being ridiculed or talked over, but by removing themselves from the conversation, they might ultimately be making it harder on themselves.
Let’s start at the beginning. If you’re not used to speaking up, how can you begin? Follow two rules:
Rule 1: Be a part of the conversation
Achieve Rule 1 by following these steps:
Get a good seat at the table – literally.
Don’t relegate yourself to some dark corner in the meeting space. Place yourself in the middle of it all, or as close to the middle as you can get. If you’re in the midst of the conversation, people are likely to make eye contact with you (be sure to look around and not down at your paper). Even just a few milliseconds of repeated friendly eye contact can build rapport between individuals. Bonus: If you’re easily seen, you’re easily heard.
Point of Clarification
If you’re not ready to submit your own opinion to the bunch, try warming up with points of clarification, even when you don’t really need them. Yes, this is especially useful following a confusing explanation or when someone else is struggling to express themselves, but it’s a handy way to practice jumping in.
After someone gets to a break in their explanation, jump in with a “So if I understand you correctly, you’re saying” and then summarize what they said. This is useful because it a) helps you get comfortable asking for clarification when you need it b) helps you practice speaking up in general c) may actually help the other person clarify their point to the group.
You don’t want to just go around clarifying everyone’s opinions, or people may begin to worry about you. At some point, you’ve got to offer up your own.
Side note: Some people may need to practice the habit of forming opinions. Sometimes past instances have equipped us with a shield of I-don’t-care that we think protects us from judgement, but actually serves to place us – you guessed it – outside the conversation.
A good way to do this is a variation of Step 2. When someone has finished explaining an idea or opinion that you like or agree with, speak up about it: “I agree with Ricky, especially the part about impressing the client.” This is a great transition because you get to support someone while tactfully dipping into the fun world of giving your opinion when you have one in meetings. Level up: asking a question or offering suggestions after the piggyback: “…but what if we let Lucy be in the show?”
Rule 2. Focus on gaining respect, not on being liked.
Adult women have been taught to practice non-threatening verbal habits since they were socially conscious young girls, and the results are often self-effacing language or getting flustered when you have the floor. Look, we all know that no matter what you sound like, as a woman, someone is going to have an opinion about it. I tend to use fillers such as “like” and “so” too often and charmingly (eye roll) forget what I was going to say in the middle of saying it. Talk about an uphill battle for respect! That point is, we’re all working on something. These and other vocal patterns (end your sentences on a high note? Like you’re asking a question?) can indeed be distracting to your audience in a professional setting, but even if you struggle with a soft voice or other vocal habit, you can own your audience’s ears by practicing Strong Verbal Phrasing. What is that? Simply a way of phrasing your message using confident and concise language. You can practice it by doing these two things:
Eliminate deficiency language
So often in meetings or class room settings, we hear a voice from the corner of the room, “I’m sorry, but” followed by a well-founded line of reasoning that makes us think. What are you apologizing for? Being a part of the conversation or having interesting and compelling arguments? Neither of these are a transgression so stop treating them that way!
When we preface our sentences with these phrases, we do so out of a fear of judgment. It’s like we want to provide a pillow to soften the blow of our opinions on our audience’s ears. They hear “Don’t judge me too harshly for this opinion because I already know I’m deficient.” I consider this a filler habit like “so” or “um,” because they are useless, yet our brain reaches for them like a comfort blanket to help us bridge a gap. I call this sort of apologetic filler language deficiency language, and it’s basically a laundry list of why your audience shouldn’t take your opinions to heart. Examples are: any sort of apologizing, “I’m not an expert, but”; “This is probably wrong, but”; “Not that I would know but.” Eliminate any apologetic deficiency language around the margins of your statement to leave room for people to hear your opinion, not your apologies. If you’re at the table, you’re already welcome and so are your opinions. Treat them like filler words: drop them.
The 1-2-3 Punch
Minimizing distracting verbal habits and needless fillers aren’t the only secrets to strong phrasing. Sometimes it can be a panic to SAY ALL THE WORDS once you finally get the floor in a high-energy meeting, because you’re aware someone may try to step in at any sign of a pause. Especially in these instances, it’s important to get to the point quickly. Think of what you want to say as having three parts:
- Short contextualizing introduction: Begin by reinforcing what your opinion is about.
- Meat and Potatoes: Now is your chance to say the thing! This is what you think about, or a question you have about the topic referenced in your introduction.
- Therefore/Because/Call to Action: Often you’ll want to support your argument with a piece of evidence from experience, your own research, something you read or heard from a trusted source, a suggestion for action, a possible outcome or consequence of said situation.
If you can present your statement in these three segments, your audience will have an easier time digesting it. I myself struggle with this because of the six-thoughts-at-once way in which my brain works. And so, like you I’m working on it.
What happens if you have more to say than just one 3-segment statement? Preface it by saying, “I have a couple things to say. Firstly, 1-2-3. Secondly, 1-2-3.” There you go. Does this have to be perfect every time? Can it be more than a few sentences? Sure. You don’t even have to do it in the 1-2-3 order, as long as you have all three segments. I present it this way, because if you are anything like me, you have ALL THE THOUGHTS racing to get to your mouth first. Or maybe once you’ve claimed the floor, your words dissolve into crickets. Either way, this is a strategy to help you organize your thoughts, present them in nice package and not drown your statement in too many words (something else I struggle with).
Follow us on Facebook and on Twitter (@EnviroWomen_DFW) to hear from some of our members about strategies they have employed to be heard in the workplace. We’ll post them every Wednesday for WE Speak Wednesday!
Practice these skills and let us know how you’re doing below. Become a member to access Part 2: Staying at the Table.
Good luck out there! Bye bye deficiency language, hello strong phrasing!