How to avoid the "speaking up" double bind

In their series of articles earlier this year @Adam Grant and @Sheryl Sandberg  mentioned the “speaking-up double bind” that most women have experienced: ten minutes after a woman introduces a new idea that nobody seems to have noticed, a man repeats the same idea, winning the acclaim of those present.  And while males who speak up are seen as 10% more competent than their peers, women who do the same are seen as 14% less competent and are more likely to be labelled ‘aggressive’. Women in male-dominated contexts face a dilemma as to whether or not to speak up.

Since that article, several women I coach have expressed their frustration at their recent experiences of the “speaking up double bind”. Here are my suggestions about how to counter it, minimizing the threat of being seen as “aggressive”.

When you present a new idea, dissenting view, or significant contribution to the conversation, and want to ensure you are being heard, try these conversational tactics:

1. Formulate your idea clearly. In the conversational flow, ideas may not always be expressed clearly and may not be fully developed in their first expression. Take the time to formulate and express your idea more clearly. Slow down your speaking rate slightly.  Summarize your idea, repeat it so that your audience has time to hear it. Make it a statement.

2. Claim  your idea. Claim the idea as your own. I like the idea of book-ending your idea with your claim to ownership. You can do this if you’ve thought through your idea before sharing it. For example: “This is my idea .. [present your idea] ..  What do you think?” or “I’ve been thinking through the way we approach x …. […] …. That’s my contribution to how we approach it.” Even if you’ve missed the chance for book-ending this time, finish your idea with your claim. Use the “I” word.

3. Hold your audience’s attention. Show your enthusiasm for your idea. Use your enthusiasm to create energy, to hold attention. And try these non-verbal tactics to go with your words: increase the volume of your voice slightly and use slightly more expansive gestures. Examples of expansive nonverbal gestures that you can make include holding your chin up a little higher, opening your eyes a little wider, sitting up taller in your chair, using hand and arm gestures that increase the space you take up, and leaning forward slightly.

4. Ask for feedback on your idea.  Finish your idea by asking for feedback.

If you are interrupted partway through your idea, what can you do?

5. Stay calm. Breathe.

6. Take attention back. As soon as you can, revert back to your unfinished idea. “Let me finish that idea I started just a couple of minutes ago. ….” “I didn’t quite get to the end of my idea to ….  I’ll quickly summarize my thinking ….. and let me finish with ……”

7. Try the ‘broken record’ technique. Repeat the idea. And repeat the idea.

If 10 minutes later someone else picks up your idea without acknowledging it, try this:

8. Reclaim your idea. Start by thanking the person for picking up on your idea. Acknowledge any improvements they’ve made. Identify any omissions that you think are important.  For example, “Thanks Sam. I’m pleased that you’ve picked up on my idea to …. I like the [addition] you’ve suggested. I also liked my original point to ….. I notice that you’ve left that out. It’s important, because …. What does everyone think?”

If you are aware that another team member is experiencing this double bind, particularly if you are chairing the meeting, try this approach:

1. Divert attention back to the idea.

2. Acknowledge the merits of the idea.

3. Identify the person as the owner of the idea.

4. Ask others for their views.

If this behaviour characterizes your team’s dynamics, name it and suggest a protocol for how to interact in meetings so that everyone’s ideas are heard and acknowledged. Include a no-interruption rule, so everyone gets an equal chance to pitch their ideas.

Not paying attention to women’s voice deprives organizations of valuable ideas. When women challenge the system and suggest new ideas, research by Ethan Burris at University of Texas shows that team leaders view them as less loyal and their suggestions are more likely to be discounted.

While this post focuses on women’s experiences of being heard,  these tactics can of course be used by anyone who wants to increase their presence.

All team members have their part to play in better managing conversations, and supporting the generation and recognition of ideas from all team members.

And of most value, team leaders who get it. The greatest value comes from the standard that team leaders set. I encourage team leaders to better understand, attune to and manage the hidden dynamics of conversations that diminish women’s voice.


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