We rarely get the full benefit of the energy and intelligence of our people, because too many of them feel they cannot speak.
From the Dynamics of Difference research, the problem of ‘speaking out at meetings’ crosses countries, industries and hierarchical levels
Looking or sounding different can put you in an uncomfortable spotlight and so meeting participants who find themselves in a minority – the only woman, the only non-native speaker of English, the only member of a particular culture or group – hold themselves in check, waiting for the right moment; wondering if what they want to say is interesting, appropriate, grammatically correct, polite, relevant, allowed, stupid. And too frequently, the right moment never actually comes.
We explain this state of affairs away in terms of confidence (well, they should just speak out more), culture (people from there never speak out at meetings), and conflict avoidance (they can’t handle disagreement) – which is convenient for us because as the fault lies with them, we don’t need to do anything.
In fact, my research suggests that most of the time it is the same people who speak up, and the same people who do not – and that both groups have work to do.
Take Anna, for example. An ambitious upwardly mobile HR manager for a global engineering giant, Anna returns from maternity leave to find her situation changed – new boss, new teams, new strategy. An important part of re-calibrating her place and performance is reading the new conversational patterns which, for the first time, are all in English. She says:
“Now when I participate in a debate I am finding it difficult to speak out or to ask anything. Is this the right thing to say? How am I going to look asking this? Is maybe the answer too obvious and that’s why no one has said this already. And in English, to all these concerns you have to add – am I using the right words? Is my idea being properly understood? In the end, thinking all those things, time passes and it is somebody else who has spoken out, so I missed my opportunity to be present.”
If English is not your first language, or the meeting culture is unnatural for you, or everyone is more senior than you are, it can be difficult to judge when and how to speak. As you form and reform your sentences in your head, holding back, listening for the gaps, you watch as different people claim their patch of the conversational floor. The light is on them, they speak and everyone listens. They know they have conversational rights.
For you though, mostly the opportunities pass by and when you do speak out, the response you get is not what you had hoped for as communications manager, Belinda, explains:
“You can’t afford a mistake. You’re on stage. Although I have an interesting point of view to express, I feel frustrated because it’s hard to get my turn. Sometimes I give up and don’t say anything. And I know you have to talk to lead the discussion or to be taken into account. It’s just that when you get it wrong and the spotlight is on you, you feel small, punished.”
Silence can be such a terrifying response. So what can you try? Here are three things to remember:
- Think of the light not as a searchlight, but a lighthouse beam. It will come round again. Time your intervention just before or just after the beams swings round over you. You need to be seen and heard, but not with the light in your eyes.
- Use a gentle, polite way in. Don’t let things build in your mind until you blurt it out as fast as you can. Instead say, “I wonder if I could just come in here?” The politeness matters – your voice is heard in support, and when the conversation pauses, you have the right to speak.
- Think not what you can say, but what you can ask. Keep your inner thoughts focused on what is being said in the meeting, and formulate a relevant, incisive question, rather than a statement of fact or opinion. If you have their attention by asking the right question, you will be able to weave your message into the conversation that follows.
We will return in the future to the question of politeness, but let me make a linguistic point. Admittedly there is difference between being gracious and ingratiating, but being appropriately polite is always important – and it does not mean that you are displaying weakness. Nor does removing markers such as “just” and “sorry” mean you are expressing your power more effectively. You are just as likely to get a reputation for being rude.
So, if you are the one in charge of meeting proceedings, and someone speaks a little later than you anticipated, or with a strange turn of phrase, or “too harsh” or “too soft” – don’t close them down; and don’t sanction interruptions or disapproval.
Protect their space and their right to speak.
At first sight it may not seem like much, but patterns like these close down too many opportunities for people to lead and to contribute inclusively, and they are very hard indeed to break. But they have to be tackled because they stifle difference and reproduce restrictive, narrow interactional routines which are bad for diversity and bad for business.