I have noticed a pattern forming amongst the professional and executive women I coach. And this applies to some men, too. Many find that although they can adequately and confidently express themselves elsewhere, in the boardroom they lose their voice.
Let me share a few examples. I have changed names to protect individual privacy:
- Ann, an attorney and director of a law firm can confidently stand up in court and address the judge. However, at the boardroom table she doesn’t express her views as her words come out sounding like ‘nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah’.
- Beth feels demoralised because when she discussed her idea with the chairman before the meeting he said: ‘That is a great idea. We’ll let one of the men put it forward.’ As we shared stories like this, the women around our lunch table nodded in agreement because many had experienced similar situations.
- Susan, demotivated by the inconsequential, rambling input from various participants at meetings, knows that she withdraws emotionally. She says ‘I have been told that my facial expression reflects this’. In her words, she ‘freezes’. Thus she doesn’t share her valuable input. The chairman and those from ‘head office’ interact with her personally only at these meetings. Thus they view her as an introvert who doesn’t participate or contribute her views. What value does she add to these meetings? In fact, she feels that her performance at these meetings prejudices their perception of her contribution to the whole organisation.
- Quietly-spoken Mandy has valuable experience across all domains of the company both nationally and internationally. Yet, she doesn’t voice her opinion at meetings because she feels that if she disagrees with others’ interpretations or suggestions that she’ll be seen as disrespectful.
These are just a few of the many examples that my clients have personally shared with me in the last few weeks. I’m sharing a few cases given to me by women, but there are many men in similar situations.
Contribution at meetings often forms the stepping stone to recognition. People remember you. So when there are opportunities to be offered, the relevant decision-makers think of you as the ‘person of choice’.
Let me share my own story with you. Thirty years ago when I was appointed to a ‘board of governors’ I felt totally ‘out of my depth’. I had expected the experience to be similar to being part of a parent-teachers association committee. And it most definitely wasn’t. I felt exactly as though Ann, Beth, Susan and Mandy’s issues were all rolled in to one person, me. All their characteristics were mine. I had them all! I wanted to quit.
However, a wonderful friend and advisor, Brian Kurz who was experienced in board matters invited me to consider doing two things and I’m very grateful to him. His advice changed my life. The first was immediately after every meeting to write down everything that I should/could have said – and hadn’t had the courage to voice. The second was to join an organisation which would enable me to learn and practise formal business meeting procedure. I followed his advice and did both of these. I was surprised to look back on my notes and see how valuable my contribution would/could have been if I had ‘used my voice’. So I gained more confidence in expressing my opinion. Through becoming familiar with ‘rules of order’ and practising, it also gave me a foundation on which to build my input.
As I became more confident and more competent, a wave of opportunities presented themselves to me. For example, I would not have dreamt that I could become the first female president of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Commerce and Industries. Nor would I steadily have climbed from level to level in an international organisation, landing up as ‘international president’. I had learned to ‘use my voice’.
So there is hope! Let’s look at a few self-observations, practices and exercises which if done on a regular basis, can help individuals gain confidence and find ways of expressing themselves authentically. We can work on ways that will eventually seem natural or become our ‘default’.
After every meeting, write down all the things that you should/could have said, but didn’t. And the reasons can vary enormously.
- Like Ann, from experience you know your words just don’t come out sounding substantial, the way you intended them. So you keep quiet.
- You might be feeling similar to the way Beth feels. She knows her ideas are great, but when the chairman told her that her idea would carry more weight if presented by some-one else, that wasn’t good for her confidence. She continues to feel wounded by that experience.
- Or like Susan, others seem to be addressing irrelevant issues and ramble ‘on and on’ so you just ‘switch off’.
- Perhaps you don’t agree with what is being said and just don’t want to seem disrespectful? You aren’t able to express your opinion in a suitable way. Mandy isn’t alone in the way she ‘holds back’.
So, in each or our experiences, there may be a combination of Ann, Beth, Susan or Mandy’s examples. What didn’t you say? And what did your body feel like at the time? Notice the clues your body provides. Did it feel heavy? Was there a feeling of tightness in your chest, stomach or elsewhere? Were you hot or cold? Did your voice seem too high-pitched, scratchy, soft? And what was our breathing like? There are many other physical manifestations you can ‘tune in’ to.
By creating awareness of your physical state, you can learn to tap in to the ‘wisdom of the body’ which often warns you in time to self-correct and self-generate.
Once you have written your notes after each meeting, leave them for a while before reading them. When you do come back to them, you may notice patterns that will be helpful in finding ways to help you improve.
I often find the following two simple practices very helpful to clients in my Executive Coaching or Leadership Development programmes. However, they must be done over and over on a daily basis until new neural pathways have developed. This is not a ‘quick fix’!
Practice 1: Finding your voice
- Stand against a wall with as much of your head, body and feet as possible touching the wall. (We all have humps and bumps in different places.) Put your fist under your chin, resting your fist on your chest to make sure your head is in the right position. This ‘posture of confidence’ is important.
- Read aloud for 3 minutes, projecting your voice as though you were speaking to some-one in the distance.
- As you read, listen to your voice. What does it sound like? Does it reflect confidence and authority?
Frequency and duration
Choose a time which on most days will be suitable. For example, you might choose 7 pm. Repeat this practice every day, seven days a week, for at least 3 weeks. (When individuals are in coaching programmes, the coach would reassess at each session.)
Our voice is the vehicle that carries our message at meetings. It has to be road-worthy! Finding our voice can be an important way of turning our ‘stumbling blocks’ into ‘stepping stones’. The purpose of this practice is to help individuals become more comfortable with hearing their own (strong) voices speaking. Being familiar with the sound of our own voice brings comfort when verbalising our thoughts at formal meetings. The more we practise, the more likely we are to be able to start controlling the way we sound.
Perhaps there is some-one who could do this practice with you? Some of my clients have included their children or spouses. And this ‘reading aloud’ has been a great activity for everyone.
There shouldn’t be any reason for not doing the practice. At first it may seem a bit strange. But it soon becomes more natural.
Practice 2: Breathing
This practice can help you to use breathing as a powerful tool in all domains of your life. It needs to be demonstrated so I’m not going to go into detail here. And again it should be practised over and over.
Exercises and reading
I encourage you to meet other executive or like-minded women or men for breakfast or lunch. Share ideas. Hearing that you are not alone in your dilemma helps. Quality conversation is good for the soul!
I highly recommend reading:
- Matthew Budd’s ‘You are what you say’. I invite you to get your personal copy and try working your way through his assignments. They are great.
- Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’ shows how it is not only the external environment that may hold women back. Many of the factors are internally generated. We need to ‘lean in’, ‘put our hands up’ and participate fully. And this applies to many men, too.
Reflection and journaling
Getting into the habit of reflecting and journaling every day can help you to notice patterns and see what your ‘blind spots’ might be.
Even before I knew about coaching, I was doing self-observations, practices, exercises, reflecting and journaling. I was fortunate to have a friend and advisor like Brian Kurz as a role model who inspired me. He gave me confidence and showed me what I needed to do to become proficient. And it is time for me to pass it on’. And I hope that you, the readers will benefit from this article.
Of course, finding yourself the right coach could help you to shift to a new ‘way of being’. The benefits would be enormous. If you are heard in all domains, not just the board meetings, if you can contribute confidently, how much more fulfilling would your life be?
You are welcome to contact me for more information on Executive Coaching, leadership development mentoring or training at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone +27 82 4993311.