Are you a woman working in a corporate environment? Have you ever missed out on an opportunity, even though you thought you were the most qualified candidate? Your communication skills could be holding you back. Read this cautionary tale to find out how…
Has this ever happened to you?
Robyn had been working in a role for a couple of years when the opportunity for promotion came up. She was ready to take the next step in her career, and she knew she had the experience to do the job well. She did her homework, prepped herself thoroughly for the interview, and it went great. She made the shortlist, along with two other candidates: her colleague Mike, who was less experienced and a bit patchy in his performance; and someone from outside the company, an unknown quantity. When her final interview again went well, Robyn was feeling more confident than ever. ‘I’ve got this in the bag!’ she thought.
Imagine her shock when Mike got the job.
So what went wrong?
As a woman, this scenario no doubt sounds familiar. We at The Colin James Method® see incidents like this occur all too often. So what happened?
When Robyn sought feedback on why she had been sidelined, she was told she needed to ‘work on her communication skills’. She was shattered. Robyn thought her communication skills were a major asset. She always spoke well, did not ‘um’ and ‘aah’ – or so she believed.
Robyn was determined to bounce back and was recommended to us for Executive Coaching. Despite her conviction that she was a ‘good communicator’, it became clear her self-perception did not match her outward behaviour.
3 communication missteps
After a few coaching sessions and shadowing her on the job, we saw three consistent communication missteps that compromised Robyn’s effectiveness.
Relying on ‘feminine charms’
As a young woman, Robyn learned how to charm others by playing ‘cute’. She would tilt her head, give wide-eyed smiles and giggle. She would downplay her intelligence and act ‘ditzy’, doing things like speaking with a vocal uptick at the end of her sentences. All these behaviours served to make herself seem non-threatening and to deflect tension or potential conflict. And they worked. People liked her. It gave her confidence. These behaviours became so ingrained that, somewhere along the line, they became unconscious.
But now Robyn was in an environment where playing ‘cute’ simply did not cut it anymore. In fact, these behaviours diluted her authority and impact.
When we first drew Robyn’s attention to this, she was appalled. ‘I’m a strong, independent woman!’ she said. However, when she was in meetings with senior managers, she began to notice how she would regress from the competent woman she was to the please-like-me, I’m-no-threat girl of her youth.
She came to a session one day and commented, ‘It amazed me how often I did this … particularly with “higher-status” bodies in the room. Not now! It’s head straight, look straight. It’s made a world of difference.’
Hot tips for a professional presence
It’s, of course, OK to be kind and considerate towards your colleagues and to have a laugh with them once in awhile. The danger lies in masking your competence by being overly self-effacing or diminishing your power through ‘cute’ behaviours. Remember, people feel more confident with people who demonstrate calm competence. Understand your worth and be prepared to back yourself with great posture, poise and purposeful conversation.
Over-talking is a common mistake we see; we describe over-talkers as ‘people who think in their mouths’. It’s easy to assume that by contributing more to the conversation, you are demonstrating your competence, but, in reality, it has the opposite effect. Robyn’s desire to demonstrate her knowledge of issues, projects and business challenges made her seem garrulous. She would use 30 words when 7 would do.
We suggested that Robyn not speak in meetings unless her contribution could be made in 6 words or less. At first, it was extremely difficult to say nothing, particularly when asked for her opinion, but she eventually started to get the hang of it. ‘I realised that Mike didn’t talk a lot in meetings and I’d always seen that as a negative,’ she wrote to me in an email. ‘But now I see it’s about learning to offer value, not noise. It’s working. I’m being taken more seriously.’
Hot tips to be on point in meetings
The key here is not necessarily to count how many words you speak, but to ask yourself, ‘What will be the most succinct way to convey the most value to the people at this table?’ Remember that if people want more information, they’ll ask for it.
Often people keep talking because they don’t really understand what the other person wants to know. If that’s the case, the solution is easy – ask. A good way to get clarity is to say, ‘I could answer your question in a number of ways, but so that I can be succinct, what specific information would be most helpful to you right now?’ There are many ways to improve your verbal communication – but being succinct in meetings is a priority.
Not thinking from the audience’s perspective
This was Robyn’s toughest realisation. Her drive and ambition meant that she saw the world through her lens. When she communicated, she would litter all her verbal and written communication with I’s: ‘I feel …’, ‘I think …’, ‘I have noticed …’. She would preface statements in meetings with ‘Let me give you my perspective’ and ‘I have thought about this, so what I propose is something I know will work …’. This distanced her audience and gave the (false) impression that she was self-interested and egocentric.
All communication needs to be considered with the audience in mind, whether that’s your boss, colleagues or team members. It seems so obvious, yet it is so easily forgotten.
Hot tips for being more inclusive
Moving from using personal pronouns to a language of inclusivity – ‘let’s’, ‘we’, ‘us’, ‘together’ – makes others in the meeting feel more involved. For example, instead of saying ‘Let me tell you what I think …’, try ‘Let’s consider this idea …’.
When you have an important discussion coming up, whether that’s one-to-one or in a group, ask yourself the following questions to prepare:
- What is the purpose of this conversation?
- Who is going to be participating?
- What is the desired outcome?
- How will the outcome help them/the business?
- How will they be challenged?
- How will I support them in those challenges?
- What are the next steps?
These questions will help you to consider your audience and their needs, and make them feel more included in the discussion.
Our blog post on 7 communications mistakes diminishing your message contains more useful tips on how to engage your audience effectively.
And what about Robyn?
The good news is that Robyn has been putting these realisations into practice and getting high-quality feedback from trusted peers. She has applied for another role with the encouragement of her manager and is feeling confident and ready this time round.
- Be aware of how you project yourself and ensure that your unconscious behaviours don’t undermine people’s perception of your competence.
- Less is more – speak to create value for others, not to prove your worth.
- Consider others in your thinking and planning, and use the language of inclusivity to help people feel more engaged.
Want that promotion? We can help
Enroll in our next Mastering Communication Program workshop to learn all these skills and more. There are only 20 spots available on each date, so get in quick!
The Colin James Method® Facilitators train corporate executives to improve their professional communication skills with a proven methodology. Our highly trained Facilitators and Coaches are recognised for their experience in their fields and have worked with many individuals and organisations around the world to master the art of communication.
Erica Bagshaw is an entrepreneur, Executive Coach and Co-Founder of The Colin James Method® and Inner Profit Pty Ltd a vibrant leadership development company in Australia. She has spent the majority of her career growing and developing close client partnerships. She loves sharing her expertise on the perfect pitch.