10 Tips for Women on Having A Difficult Conversation at Work With Men

Business woman by FakharIt’s not easy being a woman in the workplace. I have worked with many women who, for want of a better expression, suffer from ‘imposter syndrome’. The way their organisations run, and have historically run, are generally centred upon the needs and behaviours of one gender, men. There is so much innate sexism that most of us won’t even notice it in the day to day rigours of work. Unless you happen to work in a particularly enlightened organisation, it’s there.

It won’t be the blatant sexism of old, the type of sexism I endured when I first began working, (bottom patting, ‘make us a cuppa, love’) but a more covert, institutionalised sexism that both genders often find hard to directly pin point. It’ll be embedded in the working culture, in recruitment practices, in the language used, in the culture of our society as a whole and played out daily in your job. However it is manifested, it’ll probably be having an insidious effect on your confidence and feeling that you don’t quite fit in. No where is this more apparent than when women try to be heard.

There is a general resistance to women speaking out. Women who do publicly speak up are, at its worst, treated to public vitriol. Caroline Criado-Perez was subjected to actual criminal acts when she dared to speak out about keeping a female on English currency (see more on that here – Banknote Victory), and women like Mary Beard are derided for their looks when they dare to air their knowledge in public. It’s all around us.

You may not be subjected to that level of discrimination (I hope not) but whether you realise it or not it will be a factor in how you feel about expressing yourself, especially when you need to have a difficult conversation. Words like bossy and ball breaker are frequently used about assertive women. You’ll even find ‘ambitious’ being thrown at women as a term of abuse (but somehow it’s OK for a man).

Additionally, research shows that men frequently interrupt women too, and both genders think women talk too much in meetings, despite the fact that men talk the most. (See Career Tips for Women #3)

Be aware of all this and the impact it may have you. Then resolve not to be intimidated, talked over, or concede when you don’t want to.

Here are ten tips I’ve put together which may be a useful reminder when you need to assert yourself at work.

1. Take some control and try not to respond with anger. This can happen when we’ve bottled the issues up and suddenly decide to let them go. (Of course, a burst of anger may be entirely appropriate in which case, you go girl!)  It always helps to pause and think what do you actually want to happen as a result of this conversation? A few minutes thinking time now can pay huge dividends. Pause and think, “Where do I want to be at the end of this conversation? What type of behaviour do I want from the other  person?” If you want them to know how angry you are, fine, tell them but tell them when you are not so angry. Generally speaking, at work it’s best to keep a lid on it. It’s probable that you want them to do something, or to stop doing something, so be clear with yourself about that.

2. You don’t always have to respond immediately, sometimes it’s better to think about what you want to say. Let them know you’d like to have a word. Arrange a time with them, even if it’s just half an hour after hence. Take control. Don’t ask or use the ‘is it OK if we had a short meeting..’opening gambit’. And definitely don’t start with ‘I’m sorry, Bill but…” try “I need to have a quick word with you about yesterday’s meeting. Can we meet after the 11 o clock meeting?” Banish all ‘sorrys’ from your vocabulary, until you are genuinely sorry and make sure you’re not using it like a conversational tic. It’s amazing how many really senior women have a ‘sorry’ habit. And it is only a habit so it can be unlearned.  You could try replacing it with the person’s name.

3. Choose a place where you cannot be overheard. This is a bit of a minefield for women as you don’t want to send the wrong message. However, neither do you want to stage a wee entertainment for the whole office. And you’ll both be conscious of your audience which will affect the authenticity of your conversation.

4. Timing is all. First thing in the morning is not usually a great time. Let them get human first and grab a coffee and do whatever it is they need to do. Likewise, buttonholing them while they have one eye on the clock in order to rush for their train is a recipe for disaster. Perhaps just before lunch (not during) could be a good time, so both of you can escape gracefully after you’ve spoken.

5. Your body talks more than you realise. If your upcoming encounter is making you feel a little anxious you’re quite likely to be showing it. Folded arms, furrowed brows, will all give the wrong message and alarm the person you want to talk to. Chances are they will respond likewise and before you know it you’ll be locked in combat.  Stay calm, breathe deeply, keep your hands comfortably at your side and smile a little (but no grinning inanely-that’s scary too). Also, watch how much you nod your head; it means different things to men and women, see here.)

6. Make sure you check out that you have understood the situation properly. It’s probably best not to start with:

You’re such a sexist pig, you know. I’ve just discovered that almost every bloke doing my job is getting more money. That is blatant discrimination and really unfair

even though that may be true and you may be bursting to say it. Begin with a statement of the facts as you know them, allowing the other person space to correct any misunderstanding. So try something like, ‘It seems that most other people in the team have had a pay rise this year and I’d like to talk to you about my position’. Be grown up.

7. Be very specific. Generally men like facts first. Describe the actual behaviour/issue that is causing you a problem. The important point is to be specific about the behaviour that is in question. ‘You are so discriminating against women’ is too general and likely to elicit a defensive response.

8. There aren’t really any set phrases to use, although I am partial to ‘I appreciate that…’ as it neither condemns or condones, just states the facts. Consider carefully what it is that you need to say, and take responsibility for it, (being grown up again). That means you need to use the ‘I’ word. For example, you might say to someone:

‘I wanted to have a word with you because there is something that’s been bothering me and I’d like to talk about it with you. I appreciate that you may think  as I always take the minutes that I enjoy it, however, I feel…’ and say just what you feel. Is it angry, upset, put upon, undermined? Just say what you actually feel. This means you have to stop and think about exactly what you feel, hence the importance of some preparation time. No one can argue against how you feel. It is a powerful statement. What might be difficult for you is recognising what your feelings actually are and being confident enough to share them. If you can it makes your point much more powerfully.

I’ve mentioned being grown up a few times. One consequence of being patronised is that it can tap into our inner child and we may find ourselves answering from that position. It’s worth being aware of that. Think adult.

9. Once you’ve outlined the situation and explained your issue you need to get more specific. Don’t leave them in any doubt about what you’d like to happen in the future. If you can do this respectfully of the other person you have a reasonable chance of success.

10. It would be great if, having followed all the above, the other person just said how sorry they were and agreed to whatever you wanted. Sometimes it does happen like that but more often than not you will have to move on to the next stage and consider a jointly agreed solution or outcome. This is where real negotiation and understanding begins. Often in an organisation the behaviour exhibited is just part of ‘how it’s always been done’. That makes it hard for one individual to change, however much they agree, or understand your point of view.

My advice then is to talk to other women and see if they are having similar problems.  Women’s groups have a great function in consciousness raising and supporting women to challenge the status quo. I have run women’s groups in my time, but now I’d make their purpose clear, link it with organisational aims, and invite like minded, supportive men to join too. As a group you can agitate for more gender neutral policies, better training and understanding of how out of date attitudes are bad for everybody. You can ask to bring in training on gender awareness, or specific training for women to address some of the issues, like few women applying for senior positions.

Inequality at work is a major stumbling block for women but taking some responsibility for your own career, making your views respectfully known will increase your own confidence and self respect. Identify and name the problems and suggest some solutions and you may make the world a better place for those who follow you.

Interested in boosting your own personal power? RenewYou is a one day personal development course for women available across the UK, in Pakistan, Belgium, Greece, Thailand, USA,  and South Africa. Check out your nearest RenewYou course here. If you’d like to book a course for your organisation the full list of RenewYou trainers is here. Enquiries from women’s groups especially welcomed!


Posted on May 8th, 2014 by

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