Women: Increase Your Presence in Meetings

Lessowoman running meetingns from “Managing Yourself: Women, Find Your Voice” by Kathryn Heath, Jill Flynn, and Mary Davis Holt, in the June 14 issue of Harvard Business Review.

By Joanie Connell

Last week I attended a webinar and was surprised at how useful it was. In it, Kathryn Heath summarized the findings of research she conducted with her co-authors about how women can increase their presence in meetings. A few key messages stood out to me as new and important and I’d like to share them with you.

Be actively present. This means to be engaged in the discussion, not reading emails, and to actively participate and capture others’ attention. Two things can greatly improve your presence in a meeting. First, be concise. To be concise, it helps to prepare statements in advance and practice them. Yes, that means actually rehearse what you are going to say. Women, more than men, tend to begin statements with preambles and qualifiers. Ditch the preambles and go straight for the message. You can qualify it later. Strong (sometimes blanket) statements grab people’s attention.

Make powerful statements that have a strong point of view. These statements also come out of the preparation piece. To know where you stand on an issue requires you to know what the important issues are, do your research on which position you ought to take and to know where others stand before you enter the meeting.

Being actively present also requires you to insert yourself into the discussion. I say “insert yourself” very deliberately because it is critical for you to take responsibility for being heard. Don’t wait around for others to ask you your opinion or wait around for you to get to your opinion when you are not concise. Don’t shut down when others interrupt you. The best advice I heard from Heath was: “Don’t let yourself be interrupted.” This message came from the men she interviewed. Have you ever watched men have a heated discussion? They interrupt each other, talk over each other, and talk louder and louder until they are heard. Don’t be afraid to “enter the ring” and engage in the competition for the floor.

Strategy helps. It’s not only about being the loudest or most aggressive. Timing is key. Be actively engaged by watching the conversation intensively. To use a sports metaphor, think of playing basketball or soccer and watching the ball intensively to jump in and steal the ball at just the right time. You are watching the person’s moves, anticipating where they are going and who they are going to pass the ball to.

The same strategy works in meetings. Make transformational statements and ask transformational questions at opportune moments to “steal” control of the conversation and take it in a new direction.

Heath and her co-authors offer more valuable advice, like ask for feedback and don’t ruminate over failed attempts in meetings. Prepare, practice, and persevere. It takes time to improve at anything. Keep at it until you feel that you are getting the results that you want.

One question that Heath did not address: What does it mean to be successful in meetings? Depending on the context, it could be to win, to have influence over a decision, or to help the team come up with the best solution possible. I would add to Heath’s advice that it is important to keep your goal in mind and not dominate the meeting purely for the sake of having a presence. This can alienate people, not get them on your side. Heath’s techniques can help you advance the team’s best interests if used for that purpose. After all, a good leader does, in fact, work for the team.

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Special thanks to Becky Robinson of Weaving Influence for putting together this webinar and inviting me to attend.

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