In the wake of the pandemic, it can be hard for women to make their voices heard. But learning to speak up is critical for progression and self-fulfillment.
Do you sometimes feel like your voice isn’t being heard, especially in calls and meetings, whether in person or virtually, where everyone is vying for attention and pushing forward their agenda?
In the aftermath of the global pandemic, the business environment has become even tougher. Your colleagues, managers and stakeholders are all feeling the pressure of economic uncertainty, political and social realignment, and technological and organizational changes that are happening at an accelerated rate. They may be so absorbed in their own challenges that even when you do speak up, they don’t hear your message. After all, the human brain has a limited bandwidth. Yet, when we reflect on our own behavior and habits, we might discover that we’re not helping our own cause.
Faced by the double bind of wanting to be liked and wanting to look competent at the same time, women sometimes undermine their power by hedging, apologizing for, or qualifying their views – often without even realizing they are doing it. We also sometimes fail to frame issues in a way that suits the culture of our organization or industry – yet we know it is easier for a listener to hear and understand a message when it is presented in a familiar way. More than ever, women need to develop powerful voices and learn to make themselves heard.
A prerequisite for success
Regardless of what level you are in your career, enhancing your ability to make your voice heard lies at the heart of leadership, career progression, and – most importantly – self-fulfillment. Feeling like others are listening to our message makes us feel worthy as human beings – we matter. When others acknowledge our voice, we feel loved and respected. A sense of self-fulfillment comes from feeling like we’re making a difference – we have a purpose.
If our voice goes unheard, it is not possible for that purpose and impact to be fully realized. We need others to hear our ideas if we are to bring them on board and make our vision a reality.
Hard work does not speak for itself, regardless of the size of the organization. This is truer in 2023 than ever before, with our attention stretched across an inordinate amount of information, business deadlines and personal demands. Humans are not mind readers. Often, what we were thinking, and what we’ve achieved, are far from obvious to others.
In my late 20s, I found myself one day sitting in a senior consultant’s office, waiting for feedback on the MBA recommendation I had requested. I was to experience an ‘Ah-ha’ moment. The senior consultant, Hugh, reassured me that the recommendation he had written would certainly help my chances of getting into a prominent program. But then, placing the recommendation to one side, he spoke to me.
“What I’d really like to talk to you about is how quiet you are”, said Hugh. “I can see that there’s a lot going on in your head, but you rarely share your ideas and opinions. To be successful in business, you’ve got to make your voice heard.”
His words stopped me in my tracks. It was a game-changing piece of advice. I had believed that my work would speak for itself and thought that speaking up was superfluous. In retrospect, I can see that was an incredibly narrow and naïve approach to career development and progression. Yet, years down the line, I see many women repeating the same error. We cannot rely on our achievements and talents to speak for us: rather, we have to consistently and repeatedly speak up for ourselves.
Three simple steps to an empowered voice
To move from reluctance and fear of speaking up, to enjoying sharing your voice and finding that others want to listen, is a three-step process.
1 Find the right motivation to speak up
The first step is getting over your fear and reluctance and actually starting to speak up. Be courageous. The key is thinking about the outcome you’re hoping to achieve. It’s not about you per se, but rather the impact you want to have.
This distinction has helped me enormously when I have needed to gather the courage to speak up in unfamiliar settings and situations. Following my conversation with senior consultant Hugh, I knew that my career was headed toward a dead end unless I spoke up. I knew that to be seen and recognized, I would have to find my voice. Even now it is an ongoing journey, as I take on new challenges.
The downside of not making your voice heard is that eventually you find yourself on a slippery slope. No matter how hard you work, you notice that you’re not getting the feedback and recognition you feel you deserve. You become demotivated, disengaged and stuck in your current role. When you feel demotivated, it’s a downward spiral as you become less creative, less resourceful and less effective. The best way to avoid that spiral is to speak up.
2 Be strategic in your approach – the ‘who’ and ‘what’
The second step is to be selective about what you speak about and to whom. The things you say, and the way you say them, define you.
Think about your overall leadership goals, career strategy or direction. Your strategy for making your voice heard is a subset of your overall leadership goals and career strategy. With that in mind, ask yourself: what are your key messages and who is your key target audience?
Certainly, direct bosses and formal key stakeholders – but think too about those who are influencers in your organization or industry, who can help change hearts and minds and progress your agenda and vision. By being strategic about how you use your voice, you’ll get a greater return on the time and effort you invest.
3 Get others to listen to what you have to say
Now that you’re more comfortable with speaking up and you’re being strategic in what you talk about and to whom, the key is getting others to listen. Classic pitfalls are speaking louder, repeating what you’ve said, and delivering in a whining or complaining manner. It’s best to avoid hedges (“just”, “kind of”, “almost”, and so on), apologies (“I’m sorry but…”) and qualifying phrases (such as “I’m no expert but…”, or “I know you’ve been thinking of this longer than I have so I could be wrong but…”, and “I’m just thinking off the top of my head, but…”).
Instead, power-charge your language by being the first to make a comment or ask a question in a meeting or call. It’s best to spend a few minutes before each encounter to have your points and insightful questions prepared in advance. When attending a seminar or conference, be the first to raise your hand with a question or comment (which you prepared as you were listening). Remember to introduce yourself if not everyone knows you: that shows confidence, maturity and seniority.
Interacting with others – whether in person or on a virtual call – is a high-value activity. Be intentional about the outcome you are seeking from each encounter and how you need to show up. Where can you make an impact or contribute? What’s your ideal outcome?
Tailoring your message to the audience
Sometimes our enthusiasm for what we’re trying to achieve can take over, and we forget about focusing on the person in front of us. It’s helpful to pre-frame what we want to talk about in the context of what matters to the other person. Think about the ‘carrot’ for your target audiences. Bluntly, what’s in it for them? What do they have to gain by listening to you? Help them see how they fit into your picture.
Everyone’s busy so it’s important to get to the punchline first. By pre-framing your messaging with what’s important to the other person you’ll immediately grab their attention. What problem are they grappling with which your message will help with? What are their key goals?
The answers to these questions will vary with each boss or stakeholder. Reflect on their mantras too: what are they always talking about? It might be cost reduction, or operational efficiency, client service, innovation, and so on. That’s the angle you want to use to introduce your issue or topic.
For example, if your stakeholder is most concerned about risk management, you want to talk about how your proposal will reduce future risks. It makes no sense to talk about opening up new markets and new revenue sources, unless you’re pre-framing it in the context of protecting future revenue streams and building better processes around due diligence to reduce credit and market risk.
Pay attention to the language you use too: start with the word ‘You’, rather than ‘I’. Of course, we all tend to communicate from our own perspective, but the more we understand others’ perspectives, the more we can tailor the content of our messaging so that it truly resonates with others.
It is also advisable to consider your audience’s preferences for different communication channels, as well as preferred timings and settings. Each of us has a preferred communication style – some of us prefer conversation over written communication, or vice versa.
Reflect on the most suitable timing and setting to get your message across, considering when you’re at your best, as well as the preferences of your audience.
Leveraging your social capital
Two voices are better than one. Which allies can you bring on board on a given topic or initiative who could amplify your voice and your credibility? In effect, leveraging social capital is borrowing someone else’s reputation to elevate your own credibility.
I learned the art of lobbying and behind-the-scenes deal-making when I worked in a Japanese bank for over a decade. Often, by the time a meeting happens, the main decision has already been made. There are good reasons for that. Discussing issues with colleagues before a meeting makes them feel important and relevant. You’re not surprising them or wrong-footing them with your view during the meeting. Your view is balanced and considered, as you’ve incorporated others’ perspectives. And the meetings may become easier too, as you will hear other voices supporting your ideas.
Sometimes, your supporters may create space for you to present: “Let’s hear from so-and-so, as they’ve got a great idea to share.” You can also explicitly ask these allies to back you up during the meeting, or provide the perfect segue for you to introduce your topic.
Enjoying the journey
None of us is born a natural communicator or influencer – it’s a learned skill that continues to be developed as we move out of our comfort zones into new environments. It’s a process, and like so much in life, the more you do it, the more comfortable and skilled you become.
In a rapidly evolving workplace where innovation is crucial to business success, the more varied the voices, the better the end result. Even if what you’re proposing isn’t the agreed way forward, you’ve played a crucial role in shaping the future. Enjoy the journey of making a difference to others by making your voice heard and leading with an empowered voice.
Christine Brown-Quinn is a coach and author of Unlock Your Career Success: Knowing the Unwritten Rules Changes Everything (Rethink Press).