Monday, August 18, 2014

How To Make Yourself Heard

My first week at my new job, my supervisor asked me if I could quickly come to a meeting with him. I had no idea what the meeting was, but I swept my notebook off my desk and followed him through the maze of hallways to a conference room. Once I crossed threshold into the war room and noticed the sea of leather notebooks and iPads I realized that these were not fellow engineers. In fact, it was a meeting of supervisors, managers, and directors. But since I was totally new and hadn't met any of them yet, I could only tell that they were important.

WHAT AM I DOING HERE? I panicked. At my last job, my supervisor always briefed me days in advance if I was going to meet anyone important so I had time to prepare my presentation and not look like a total nincompoop. Given at the time I thought his briefings were totally unnecessary, but finding myself in some mystery meeting I began to wish I knew anything about what I should expect.

My supervisor motioned to a plush leather chair next to him, and I nervously sat down. A commanding middle aged man walked into the room, and the other men all fell completely silent. They began to discuss business, training of new engineers, who had been fired, and the path they wanted to take to success. On one hand I was excited to get to hear this information first hand, on the other hand I felt like I was peeking behind the curtain and I would be in trouble if anyone noticed me there. Maybe if I just leaned back a little I could disappear. Or maybe that would make me look lazy. Maybe I should be taking notes. But since none of these were action items for me I might look like a secretary.

And then, all of a sudden, the commanding man turned to me, "And what about you? Do you have anything to add? I'm sorry, I don't think I've met you yet..."

"Vanessa," I choked out.

"She's a new engineer here," my supervisor said.

"Well, Vanessa, do you have anything to add?"

Was I supposed to have something to add? What do people normally say? Am I missing some social cues here?

"Um, no," I smiled weakly, hoping the pathetic smile would help lessen the blow if I was expected to have some ground breaking answer.

"Okay," he said, moving onto the next subject.

It was the first time in ages I'd been afraid to speak up during a meeting, and I was ashamed of myself. I'm not a shy person by nature, but I was so distracted by mitigating the consequences of saying something off point that I ended up saying nothing. And when I say nothing (especially when asked) people presume that I have nothing to say, effectively causing the same problem if I had said something idiotic.

I wish this was just a personal problem, but research shows that in collaborative environments women spoke less than 75% of the time of their male counterparts. So apparently, I'm not the only one with a propensity for psyching myself out in a meeting.

Feeling like my voice had been stolen by a sea witch who had given me the chance to be a real engineer for a day was something I was familiar with from my intern days, but was a habit I kicked when I really listened to what other people were saying. They were not more qualified to speak than me, and my conclusions were no less valid that theirs. As an engineer, I am paid for my ability to solve problems. If I just sit in a room like a bump on a log while I let others solve the problem, I am not really doing my job.

If you don't get this reference, you got some Disney to watch.
So, I started speaking up in meetings. The first couple times it came out sounding more like an apologetic question than actual feedback. But eventually I became a regular participant in meetings- unabashedly sharing my knowledge and even disagreeing with other people when I felt otherwise. This isn't a business where they pass around a sharing stick to make sure everyone feels included, so if I had something to say I made sure to interject it. That didn't mean that I would chat through the entire meeting and make unfounded statements. Just that I was no longer afraid to act like people should respect my opinions. The world didn't implode, and once I learned how to speak in statements instead of questions people took my input seriously.

After years of practice it was second nature, which is what made the most recent case of meeting jitters so strange. Luckily it seems like it was a result of me not knowing what to expect and I've already gotten it back under control.

Have you ever had a tough time speaking up during meetings? How did you convince yourself to speak up?



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