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In my 15 years of working primarily with women leaders, many of them have shared their frustration and fears about talking to decision-makers and how difficult it feels to convey their desire for executive-level opportunities.
I understand the feeling well, as someone who used to struggle to speak up in meetings or make sales calls in the early days of building my company. I used to feel an overwhelming sense of panic as I would begin to over-share irrelevant details in meetings that were not germane to our limited time. But as a woman, I have been conditioned to be emotional, thoughtful and nurturing, while avoiding combative or contentious conversations. In my former life in law school, I realized that getting to the partner level at any of the legendary Wall Street firms required one clear skill : communication.
Working with lawyers and prosecutors as an intern more than 20 years ago helped me to become an effective professional communicator, especially with decision-makers and gatekeepers. I had to learn how to keep the details short, direct and clear to achieve a specific result. Besides, you learn quickly in “big-law-firm life” how to avoid the impulse to overshare and simply ask for what you want.
It may sound a bit harsh, but most of us have a few common communication faux pas that could potentially block us from that proverbial “seat at the table.” Here are the top three that you should be aware of.
Many professional women tend to be over-apologetic in meetings with colleagues and in the presence of decision-makers, which can be perceived as weak or even childish. For example, saying that you are sorry during a meeting because you disagree with another colleague’s point of view, or raising your hand to speak up during a meeting and then uttering a simple “sorry” before adding value to the conversation, are examples of this communication faux pas.
Although the constant barrage of apologies are designed to indicate politeness and kindness, they’re often viewed as indecisive and passive. Instead of apologizing, elect for gratitude. Replace the statement, “I’m sorry to interrupt” with, “Thanks for listening” or, “I have something to add, thanks.”
This creates a level of attentiveness about the value of your contribution and limits the appearance of fear or timidness that an introductory apology suggests.
“A long time ago”
In 2014, I met a male chef who was featured on Oprah in the early 1990s. He continued to wear his signature “As Seen on Oprah” shirt as if the show was still on the air. However, by continuing to highlight his past achievement, his business continued to experience exponential growth and landed his products in restaurants, major conventions and, recently, on the Food Network — all from a feature that dated back over 20 years. He told me, “Your achievements don’t expire until you stop talking about it.”
It’s common to believe that your previous accomplishments have diminished in value due to time and to subsequently minimize their importance. But I have met high-achieving men over my real estate career who continue advertising their highlight reel of significant successes from eras past, llustrating how it’s shaped the growth of their company.
Women sometimes factor in relevance and the negative impact of bragging into their decision to omit accomplishments and accolades. When we share, it’s common to add, “That happened such a long time ago,” which makes it even easier to be overlooked for an opportunity.
But our accomplishments are relevant and do not have an expiration date; you cannot keep others guessing about your potential.
Let’ say you’re on a leadership track within your company and finally have the ear of an influential decision-maker who has invited you to attend an exclusive networking event, but you cannot attend due to a conflict in your schedule. You may feel the impulse to fully narrate all of your plans. This is the wrong move.
The wrong approach
“I wish I could join you, and thank you again for the invitation. I can’t attend because I promised my mother that I would join her for dinner, and since we rarely get a chance to see each other now that I moved to Seattle from Portland and she is only here for a few more days, I don’t want to break my promise. I’m so sorry, maybe next time.”
The correct way to communicate your decision
“Unfortunately, I can’t join you tomorrow as I have a previous commitment which cannot be changed. I am honored to be considered and look forward to joining you at the next event. Thank you.”
The moment you add because I to a professional conversation, there is a likelihood that you will overshare superfluous personal details. I also observe the same issue over email: “Sorry for the delay in responding. I was out of the office yesterday because I had to take my son to the doctor.”
By omitting because I, you will only share the most relevant details that the other party isn’t privy to, as opposed to ones that may work against you in the future.
It’s essential to become aware of how simple everyday communication errors can negatively impact your career. Although you may not realize it, decision-makers and gatekeepers are seeking confident talent, and adding more women to the list is paramount — especially in the time of the Great Resignation. Be aware of how common phrases, which are more acceptable in personal settings, can be harmful to your career and business growth.
You can now pre-order Carol Sankar’s my upcoming book, No Explanation Required, in which she shares more strategies for professional women to become effective communicators.