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How to Make Yourself Heard in Meetings

Getting colleagues to stop talking over you takes time and strategy

An illustration of a woman figure standing on an office chair, holding up a large megaphone and talking into it.
Illustration: Momo

Jessica Powell, the former Google vice president who wrote The Big Disruption and told you how to quit your job, is here to answer your common but tricky work questions. Check back every other week for more management advice with a tech inflection.

I’m a data scientist at a successful startup. I’m constantly told that I’m at a great place to work for women: Our CEO is female; our product offers a service targeting women; and, unlike other places where I’ve worked, we spend a lot of time thinking about the female consumer.

But none of this changes the fact that I’m often the only woman in the room during technical conversations. I’m frequently interrupted during meetings, and I watch my ideas be ignored — only to have someone else repackage them as their own a few minutes later. How can I make myself heard?

II wish this were the first time I’ve heard this problem. Alas, there is a large body of research around how women are interrupted more frequently than men — even on the Supreme Court!

While gender dynamics are very likely at play in the problem you’re describing, many of the tips to tackle it are applicable to most anyone who’s struggling with making themselves heard in the workplace. There are many men, after all, who also don’t fit into the mold of the alpha male—the man who charges into conversations and sucks all the oxygen from the room; the one who views each meeting as a place to assert his status.

I’d love to say that you should call out the bad behavior as it’s happening. But you may find that hard to do, and more important, it may not be well received: If others in the meeting don’t think you’ve been wronged (whether or not they’re aware that they are doing or accepting this behavior), then they may think you’re overreacting. Moreover, the person you’ve confronted may behave defensively and hold a grudge.

A gentler, longer-term approach might be the better route.

Let’s start with your immediate team and work our way up from there. Is there someone who participates in these meetings whom you view as a good co-worker and potential ally? If so — and especially if the person is well-respected by others — try to have a casual lunch conversation where you bring this up. It can be uncomfortable to bring up gender dynamics — most women fear being labeled “that woman” who complains about sexism — even with someone we trust. So, try to make the argument very concrete and not just about how this behavior makes you feel. For example:

“I’ve noticed that every time we’re in the product review meeting, I get interrupted. At first I wondered whether I was being paranoid, but then I counted. Yesterday, there were 40 interruptions. Twenty of those interruptions were when I was speaking. When I started to talk about the onboarding flow, I didn’t even get past the first sentence.”

Ask the co-worker if they could help you in the next meeting. If they notice the interruptions happening, maybe they could ask the others to let you finish. It’s giving them a concrete way to help, rather than just listening to you rant and giving you their sympathy.

Running a kinder, more inclusive meeting can include explicitly soliciting feedback from quieter team members.

Another way your co-worker can help you (and how you, too, can be a good co-worker to others) is by building on colleagues’ ideas, all the while making sure to explicitly give them credit: “As Camila was saying earlier, it’s probably a better long-term strategy to focus on retention and not just sign-ups.”

Next, can you talk to the person who runs the meeting about the dynamics in the room? In an ideal world, you can make your case about a larger dynamic than just your own complaints as a way to inoculate yourself from any perception that you are being whiny. For example, you could point out that others are frequently getting interrupted, that there is a disrespectful meeting culture where people run over each other, or that quieter staff who have useful contributions often hold back from speaking.

A good leader should be open to this feedback and willing to brainstorm how it can be tackled. Running a kinder, more inclusive meeting doesn’t just mean stopping interruptions; it can also include actively soliciting feedback from quieter team members or going around the room to give each person a chance to speak.

If all that fails, I’d seriously consider finding somewhere else to work. I know that sounds extreme, and there may be multiple reasons why you can’t easily make that happen. But if you’re in a high-demand field (like data science), you likely do have that flexibility, and it’s worth considering.

Sure, no workplace is perfect, and even the best places struggle with encouraging inclusive meeting environments. But if your managers and peers aren’t interested in improving things, and you feel like you don’t have any levers to help push for change, is that really a good place to be in the long term?

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter that your company is lauded for being progressive. If it’s not a good experience for you, it’s not the best place to work. Unless there’s a clear career or financial upside, why would you stick around?

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Jessica Powell

Jessica Powell

Technophile, technophobe. Music software start-up founder. Former Google VP. Author, The Big Disruption. Fan of shochu, chocolate, and the absurd.

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