Why women sometimes aren't heard at meetings

Dear Joan
I am a faithful reader of your column and consider your advice practical.

I am responding now to your recent column about confrontation and expressing conflicting opinions. You have some excellent ideas about keeping emotions under control and not taking differences personally. However, you do not go as far as I would like.

My problem is trying to express ideas when being frequently interrupted for differing opinions or challenges. I want to hear what these people think but I cannot keep my train of thought, not can my listeners follow, when interruptions are made. I have tried asking them to let me finish, or stating, "Please give me the courtesy of uninterruption," but then that is viewed as conflict or even a "closed mind".

It seems the person who talks the most carries the most influence because differing ideas are cut off. This occurs frequently in meetings, where I think the supervisor should control interruptions, but most frequently in informal gatherings, such as networking, etc.

I have come to avoid these situations where interrupters reign, but I know I am then out of the loop and not getting my ideas across. What are your suggestions?

Years ago I might have suggested that you simply get more assertive. I thought that women who weren't heard just weren't expressing themselves correctly. Years later, after spending thousands of hours in meetings, in hundreds of companies, I had a much different view. I began to notice that certain patterns emerge when men and women are in a meeting together. I came to the conclusion that there was no evil plot on the part of men to ignore what women said; it was subtle, and most people weren't even aware it was going on.

That was about the time I ran into Deborah Tannen's groundbreaking book, Talking From 9 to 5, (1994, William Morrow & Co.). She studied the way men and women communicate in the workplace, and it's some of the best research I've seen. Countless meetings were observed, recorded and transcribed. Then interviews were conducted to gather perceptions following the meetings. Here are some of her findings (and mine) that may illuminate your situation and give you some ideas for making yourself heard.

Didn't I just say that?
The research shows that some men-and almost every women-experienced saying something in a meeting and having it ignored, then hearing the same comment taken up by the group when it is repeated by someone else (nearly always a man). Tannen tells the story of one particular meeting she observed where she thought a man named Phil was responsible for most of the suggestions adopted by the group. When she typed up the blow-by-blow dialogue, she was surprised that another member of the group, Cheryl, had made all of the key suggestions. He had picked up her ideas and expanded them, speaking at greater length in support of her ideas than she had in raising them. Tannen did not regard Phil as having "stolen" Cheryl's ideas. He had not tried to take credit for them, and Cheryl, Phil and the rest of the group felt that it was a good, balanced meeting.

Note: Although they work well as a team and the ideas were adopted, there is a risk here over time. If the supervisor doesn't recognize the dynamics of their interaction, Cheryl may be ranked unfairly low, be passed over for promotions, or be ignored when innovative teams are chosen for choice projects.

The one who talks the longest wins.
Some speakers try to be succinct, to try to limit meeting time. Researchers Barbara and Gene Eakins examined tape recordings of meetings and found that, with one exception, the men spoke more often and spoke longer. The men's turns ranged from 10.66 to 17.07 seconds, the women's from 3 to 10 seconds. Studies of e-mail show the same thing, with men's messages being twice as long, on average, than women's.

Note: The leader of the group discussion needs to limit interruptions. All members should be encouraged to elaborate on their ideas, before the rest of the group is allowed to jump on them. Women need to speak louder, longer and more elaborately about their ideas. Saying, "Please let me finish..." isn't rude. In fact, I notice it's a statement most men use regularly in meetings to hold the floor.

The words you choose.
Tannen observed that many women use a non-presumptive opener before they make a statement. Linguist Susan Herring studied on-line discussions and found that women often use these "disclaimers" when they write. By prefacing their statements with a disclaimer such as "I don't know if this will work, but..." the speaker sounds less sure of herself.

Herring also found that women tend to use a "personal voice" ("I am intrigued by your comment..."), while men used an assertive tone ("It is obvious that..."; "Note that...").

What's the bottom line here? Keep on asserting your opinion and try to hold the floor until you're finished, regardless of how often you're interrupted. Keep your good humor and tact. Talk to your manager about establishing a little more structure to your meetings, such as brainstorming solution ideas without interruption and waiting until all ideas have been heard before evaluating them. And finally, choose your words to make your point, not to soften it.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
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