One for the Women
This post is for all the women I’ve coached over the years, all the women who’ve struggled to get their voice heard and all those girls who are wondering who they dare to be.
You may be surprised to learn that I’ve been there too. I know what it feels like to be struck dumb. The excruciating feeling of being full of words, but too scared to speak. I’ve experienced that tear-jerking, blush-making, anger-inducing sensation of wanting to talk, but feeling incapable of doing so. Paranoid about getting it wrong, being laughed at, looking like a fraud….
The frustration at not being heard is the impetus behind my gravitas programmes and the empathy that drives my work with women and girls.
Because it turns out that workplace communication is a struggle for many women, even in senior positions. Research by RADA in Business, has found that women are 68% more likely than men to say they never feel comfortable expressing themselves in a work environment, struggling most in board meetings, one-to-ones and meetings with senior management.
So why is this such a challenge for women?
Often, it goes back to childhood, when some ‘little-girls-should-be-seen-and-not-heard’ adult shut us down. Other times, it happens at the start of a career, when plucking up the courage to speak leads to being talked over, ignored or disagreed with, only for the point to be made by someone else later on.
These experiences are powerful. They send a message at the deepest subconscious level that it’s unsafe to put our head above the parapet. So when asked to share our opinion in a meeting, even an unthreatening one, we find it safer to keep our mouths shut. Or we minimise our impact by adding in ‘I’m not sure this is right’ disclaimers, cracking a joke, over-dramatising our point or, at the other extreme, being too forceful, intense or overbearing.
Yes, it can be tough. No, it’s not easy to step out of your comfort zone. But the good news is, if you want to learn, you can. And I want you to know that you deserve to be heard. Because the world is a poorer place if you stay quiet.
A few years ago I was interviewed by Marina Gask for a piece in the Daily Telegraph called The Smart Women’s Guide to Being Heard at Work. That article was the inspiration beyond my second book Power Up: The Smart Woman’s Guide to Unleashing Her Potential, which I launched in 2020 and was shortlisted by the Business Book Awards under the category of exceptional book to promote diversity.
Sadly, the challenges I shared in the Telegraph article back then are just as prevalent now and so with International Women’s Day on the horizon, I thought I’d share some of my top tips here.
If you’re struggling to get your voice heard, I encourage you to put any bad experiences in the past, be brave, challenge yourself. And most importantly, try these techniques – all of which I use, all the time. I guarantee that in time, you will notice the difference.
Step1: Be kind to yourself
Whatever level you reach, if you see yourself as a little kitten instead of a mighty lion you’ll never communicate assertively. If your self-talk is negative, your brain will respond in kind and it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Tell yourself instead: “I’m absolutely prepared, I have a right to be in this room, and what I’m about to say is incredibly valuable”. This will power up your confidence and give energy to what you say.
Step 2: Get some feedback
Increase your self-awareness when it comes to your best skills and personal qualities. Get a sympathetic colleague to observe you in a meeting and afterwards give you tips on what you did well and what you could do differently.
Step 3: Create a virtual library
Before going into a difficult meeting, visualize and replay positive highlights from your career in your head. Like the time you confidently delivered your message or spearheaded a project that produced outstanding results. Shifting your focus to you at your best enables you to project your confident self. And, like actors and sports stars, have your own discreet ritual or ‘anchor’, a movement that has a deliberate association or memory with feeling confident and in control. Once performed it will recapture the way you felt that day and remind your brain that you can do this – and you will.
Step 4: Conquer your verbal tics
Make your statements without apology, preamble or disclaimers that undermine your authority. Try using the rule of three to make your statements concise. And if you want to interject, make sure to build on the previous speaker: “That’s a great idea, and there are three points I want to make in response. The first is xxx, and the second is xx, and finally xx…” In this way you’re stopping people interrupting you, while encouraging your brain to be brief”.
Step 5: Avoid blurting it out
If you want to be heard, first think, then take a breath, then speak. If you just blurt your thoughts out without doing this, you’ll risk rambling on and you won’t have the same power. And learn to cut in effectively. If everyone’s talking, don’t just lob in a bomb. Instead say “I’d like to pick up on X’s point and…”.
Step 6: Stick with your beliefs
You don’t need to have everyone in the meeting fervently nodding their heads in agreement. Stick with your beliefs and don’t be deterred by people’s apparent lack of interest. Although it can be tempting to say things like “Does that make sense?” when you’re met with blank faces, that sounds like you’re seeking approval. Instead say: ‘What are people’s thoughts on this?”
Step 7: Monitor your voice
Under stress our voices tend to go higher pitched, which can make us come across as a shrill and even insecure. But there’s no need to morph into Maggie Thatcher or a man in order to counteract this. Just increase your awareness about what happens to your voice, and lower it at the end of a sentence. A lowered voice says “I’m not asking you, I am telling you”
Step 8: Take up more space
The way we take up space with our bodies says so much about our self-belief and our place in the workplace. To do this plant your feet on the floor and ground yourself, standing up to your full height and lengthening the spine. Allow your shoulder blades to open out and drop your shoulders into an open neutral status. And if you’re sitting down, sit straight and symmetrically, with your head up, shoulders back and your hands on the table.