Getting your voice heard at meetings – how to speak up with impact and integrity
Being heard is important to us. To our purpose, our identity and to our leadership – having a voice at the table is critical to making an impact as a leader. Even though sometimes it is the minor chords that amplify (yes they do, more later) we need to ensure our contributions land and engender confidence in our performance and potential.
Women often say they don’t believe they are as effective in meetings as they would like to be. Yet meetings are one of the most important platforms for any manager and leader to demonstrate their capability. Those around you are judging both your confidence and your competence at meetings. So, you need to be intentional about:
- What you say, and
- How you say it
If not, your silence speaks volumes. By not bringing your voice to the table, you leave so much of what you have to offer at the door.
Studies show Deborah Tannen: The Power of Talk: Who Gets Heard and Why (HBR sept-oct 1995) that boys and girls still learn different conversational styles, that “women downplay their certainty, men minimise their doubts” and men can be more sensitive to the power dynamic and women to the rapport dynamic in meetings.
We also know we reward styles similar to our own so let’s look at what you say and how you say it with these considerations in mind. This is not about having to be fake or act like a man, but assessing your situation and the impact you are having, and fine tuning it. It’s simply about building your personal strategic effectiveness.
Preparation is everything
Of course you prepare for meetings but how are you preparing? It is not simply getting familiar with the agenda and papers but the ecosystem, what’s the REAL agenda? Spend time in pre-meetings, this isn’t a waste of time, it is part of preparing for the meeting so you know what is important to others there. Once you understand the underbelly of the meeting then it is important to prepare what you’re going to say, not in a rote fashion but just so you have a few things in your back pocket you can contribute confidently.
What you say
It goes without saying that you need to be attuned to the conversation at the meeting and be on top of the subject, but waiting to be invited to comment doesn’t work. I hear women say they often struggle to ‘break in’. Here’s how to do it.
Prepare some questions. Asking questions sends signals about competence and power and it helps you find your way into a conversation. If they are good ones that is, not simply enquiring or looking like you haven’t read the papers but questions that get to the heart of things and take the conversation up a few thousand feet. And they are not always questions that demonstrate your technical expertise. You are demonstrating your strategic grasp and senior people there will be pleased to see it. Get on in there and ask.
Not to mention, practice saying ‘I’ occasionally instead of ‘we’. Be conscious of when you apologise or start a sentence with ‘sorry’, and do less of it.
How to say it so it lands
Building a congruent presentation style doesn’t mean yelling and bellowing to be heard, it takes practice. How you enter a room, take your seat and use your voice all impact how you make your presence felt. Keep an even tone, not a high pitch and watch your voice going up at the end which sounds tentative. Have a trusted colleague in the meeting give you feedback about how you come across.
An important capability for leaders that is keenly observed by senior people in the room is your ability to ‘bottom line’. It is intensely frustrating to have to go through the highways and byways of people’s thinking, you need to be able to synthesise and use facts to land your point of view. Practice it with your teams, help them learn to do it. It is a discipline that will stand you and them in good stead. It means (and demonstrates) you are thinking at a level that many don’t get to. When I am chairing meetings I really pay attention to those who bottom-line. And note it.
How to handle conflict and confrontation in meetings
Meetings can get heated and become a platform for jockeying for position and one-up man ship. You don’t have to play the game but shrinking from it will demonstrate you can’t cut it. See it as an opportunity to be involved, not in an emotional win-lose way, but as an opportunity to be the sage. The leader. Yes, this is where you can play the minor notes. This means managing your internal self to stay calm and not getting defensive. Kick in your belly breathing, slow it all down. It is not personal, just go to your practiced questions to buy yourself some safe breathing space, calmly drop your voice and give these a go:
6 go-to phrases for when it gets tough
1. Help me understand…
2. What are we trying to achieve here?
3. Can we take that issue off-line and focus for the moment on…
4. Please…let’s not interrupt one another
5. We both want the same thing here…
6. What is the priority right now?
This is why we need to also manage our inner voice
If a meeting doesn’t go your way it can feel bruising and result in endless rumination about what you did wrong or how it all went. When in conflict we can also become the victim blaming others for our problems. Yet you are in charge of how you see things and you can flip that. Tell the positive story.
Shake off the worry about it and the endless reworking of the scene. This is how to shake it off – just ask yourself how will I see this in 6 months and what will I learn from this. Then let it go. He hasn’t given it a thought about it since, I promise! We can fuel positive emotions by changing the stories we tell ourselves.
Another way to ensure you stay positive is to give others positive feedback. That’s not so you get some positive feedback in return but because appreciating others fuels positive emotions and is energising – make sure you recognise others accomplishments every week. Make it one of your leadership habits.
And if you are new to meetings just set yourself small goals, to speak up twice, or ask one question, be curious and observe yourself and others and your impact. But don’t moan about meetings, they are a fabulous learning and visibility opportunity. Just bring your best leadership self to them.
Take the floor – find your voice, people want and need to hear it.
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