If You Don't Speak Up, I Can't Hear You!

Women in Business

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by Cindy Petitt

You are sitting in a meeting, much like many other meetings you have attended. The topic is important and the participants are highly regarded. You leave the meeting without saying a word. Why?

You didn’t know what to say?
You couldn’t get a word in edgewise?
You were afraid if you spoke up others would think you are not smart?

Perhaps, when you previously tried to speak up, others cut you off, or your points were ignored. If you are one of the few women in the group, or if you are in the minority in any way, you may be experiencing the hierarchy of Listening Group Dynamic. People listen to others who are most like them. Points made by someone who is different don’t seem to penetrate the listener’s consciousness as readily. It happens unconsciously, and although it feels very personal, it is not. What is most notable about this dynamic is that one person, who is in the minority, may raise a point with no group reaction. When another person, who is in the majority peer group, repeats the identical point, everyone thinks it’s brilliant.

Another dynamic is the threshold of listening. On average, men tend to get to the point quickly and have a definite word threshold when it comes to listening. Once that threshold is reached, either they become impatient and cut the other person off, or their brains go into zone-out, where they literally don’t hear another word. In contrast, women tend to have long preambles and closings because they are focusing on the relational aspects of a conversation. In a mixed gender group, if a woman takes too long to get to the point, she is doomed. 

Here are a few tips to help you when you have something to say, but the group dynamics are holding you back.

>> If you experience the hierarchy of Listening Group Dynamic, you can strategize with a member of the dominant group to jointly present a recommendation, or have that other person repeat and give recognition to your ideas. 

>> When you are in a meeting that is predominantly male, be concise by using the WAIT (Why Am I Talking) technique to clarify your objective and “laser speak” to express it. Laser speak consists of three sentences that can be completed in less than a minute. The first sentence is the answer to WAIT. The second sentence is to state your point, and the third sentence consists of two to three supporting facts. An example might help:

• I would like to express another point of view. (WAIT) 

• The advantages of providing flexible work arrangements far outweigh the disadvantages. (Your Point)

• Studies show that flexible work arrangements not only reduce costs, but also increase employee satisfaction, productivity and retention. (Supporting Facts) 

>> No preamble, no closing. If anyone needs more information, they will ask.

>> If you tend to struggle to find an opening to express your views, try to raise them early rather than waiting until the discussion gets into full swing. The longer you wait, the harder it will become. 

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For those of you who tend to be at a loss about what to say, here are tips to help you genuinely add value to almost any meeting. 

>> Ask a probing or clarifying question. The question could be about the impact of a proposal, the objectives of the discussion, or how others are reacting to a suggestion. If you noticed another member of the group being cut off, ask that person for more information about the point he or she was raising.

>> Share your observations. Good listeners are better at identifying patterns that can be used to refocus a meandering discussion. Share what you have observed. For example: “We have several open issues; we will make more progress if we close out each issue before moving on to another one.” “There doesn’t seem to be much support for this recommendation, or risks in taking it off the list; why are we resisting doing that?” “These three themes are emerging from the discussion, which are good places to focus our efforts.” 

>> Be prepared. Most business professionals have the perennial problems of not enough time, coupled with back-to-back appointments, and it often becomes the norm for participants to be unprepared for meetings. They end up focusing on issues that are already covered in the pre-reading materials. If you even scan through materials provided in advance of meetings, you can really stand out by helping the leader refocus the meeting on its intended purpose and pointing out where to find answers to questions being raised.

Delivering results is critical to establishing credibility. Having a voice in meetings amplifies that credibility. If you want to make a difference, you need to speak up. As with anything, the more you do it, the easier it will become. So, get started now!

Cindy Petitt is an executive coach and management consultant. She has conducted studies on factors that help and hinder the advancement of women to executive levels in male dominant corporate environments. She also conducts workshops for women on topics such as personal presence, communicating with influence, and leadership; and workshops for men and women on gender differences.

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