It’s easy to forget that we all get stuck at work, or feel like we can’t find a way forward at times. Here to help: Sue Unerman is the chief transformation officer at MediaCom, and Kathryn Jacobs, OBE, is the chief executive at the British adversiting company Pearl and Dean. Together, they wrote The Glass Wall: Success Strategies for Women at Work and Businesses That Mean Business. Here, they answer common career questions with pragmatic, honest advice that’s proven to work.
Help! I'm not the loudest person in the world, and I’m not the most vocal in meetings. However, I know that I have good ideas. I just don’t get the chance to air them, and often get talked over. I can’t change your personality, but I often wonder, "Will I ever be able to get myself heard?"
"First of all, let me reassure you that you’re not the first person to ask us this question. It comes up again and again," says Unerman. "And you don’t have to change your personality at all. We’ve got some tried and tested techniques that will definitely work to make yourself get heard."
1. Buddy up.
Kathryn: First of all, can you ask a colleague to support you? Enter into a pact with them, so that the next time someone speaks over you, they will speak out for you. It’s really difficult to do this for yourself, but much easier to do it on behalf of a buddy. If Sue and I are in a meeting together, and someone speaks over her, I will say: 'Hang on, I just heard Sue say something really interesting. Sue, do you mind repeating it because I don’t think that everyone heard you.' That way I will create some space for her, and of course she’ll do the same for me. The women in the Obama White House apparently all did this for each other, but of course it doesn’t have to be a woman that you buddy up with.
2. Identify the chair.
Sue: Another technique is to enlist the help of the person chairing the meeting, particularly if it is a regular meeting. One of the stories in our book talks about a woman who is regularly shut out by her two men colleagues who consistently sparred with each other and literally left no space for her to talk. The weekly hour catch up with their boss was over by the time they’d talked about sports, mentioned who they were due to have lunch with that week, and then indulged in a bit of one-upmanship about a business idea.
What did she do about it? She went to the boss who was chairing the meeting, and asked him if he’d noticed that she never had the opportunity to speak. He replied that from then on he’d make sure that the situation changed. After all, he’d promoted her into the team so that her skills were used, not to pour the coffee. In the very next meeting, he told the two men to pause, keep quiet for a minute, and specifically invited her opinion. In this situation, it was as simple as that. He didn’t see her asking for help as a sign of weakness, but the very opposite.
Kathryn: And speaking of pouring the coffee: Don’t. We absolutely advise against it unless you are the CEO. Frankly, don’t pour the drinks, don’t fetch the coffee; sit back and let someone else do that.
Sue: It is important make sure that you consider every perspective when you think you’re being talked over. That is, do others in the meeting think you’re not being heard? I found myself being persistently shut down when I had ideas about a particular project. I talked to the person in charge, and he said that he felt that I wasn’t listening. This knocked me back as clearly his take on the situation was the opposite of mine — he thought I wasn’t listening. I felt as though I wasn’t being listened to. As a result, I changed my approach, and made sure that when I had a point to make that I built on the previous point.
I was the only woman on the team, and I was probably coming across as combative. I was excited about my point, and charging in to make it too brutally. I don’t know if this was a gender issue or not, and frankly in the moment I didn’t care. I just wanted to get my point across. So rather than disagree, and be shut down, I took the existing argument, reinforced it, and then made my observation clear about how it could be improved. Simply raising my perspective on the issue and hearing the contrasting view was useful though. It stopped me from being frustrated, and allowed me to find out what others thought was going on. Your reality might not be the same as the other people in the room, and it is worth taking a moment to find out what others think is going on, too.
3. Identify the (other) chair.
Kathryn: This might sound trivial, but where you sit can make a huge difference. We believe that there are three best spots to sit, and you should aim for them. The first is immediately opposite your boss. The other two are either side of him or her. How you sit is very important, too — don’t sit back from the table, and don’t lounge or look bored. Sit up, take interest, and take up space at the table.
4. Be confident.
Kathryn: Even how you enter the room is important; please don’t slide in and sit in the back of the room. You’re not there because they needed to squeeze some people into the meeting. You're not there to be invisible; you’re there because you’ve been invited to contribute.
5. Plan ahead.
Kathryn: Try and plan for what you’re going to contribute in advance. Often, if you’re not presenting the work yourself, it’s easy to think that you’re just there to listen, and you don’t plan for what you might say. You can plan, look at the agenda, even ask to see the draft content of the meeting in advance so you can plan for and practice your contribution.
Also, why not be the person who provides the analysis/stimulus of what’s worked in other areas? Maybe not 40 slides, but a quick link to case studies, stuff that might be of interest to your company? That way you look like the person with a bigger understanding of the whole situation, which is very powerful, but in an understated way.
Sue: We know these techniques work, as we’ve heard from lots of women who’ve used them. Give them a try — it should make a real difference.
This article was originally written by Kathryn Jacobs and Sue Unerman, authors of The Glass Wall, Success Strategies For Women At Work And Businesses That Mean Business ($15.46, Amazon.)
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