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How To Build Feminine Leadership Presence

By Kerryn Gamble

Ever been in a meeting and felt like you were being ignored or not taken seriously by the males in the room? Recently I attended a meeting with a small group of VIPs and could have been invisible, until I took responsibility for my presence and shifted the energy in the room …

The dynamics in play were interesting yet not uncommon. The meeting began with all eyes on our VIP guest and as he spoke, his focus was directed to the highest ranking male, followed by the other high profile males in the room. Initially, I was ignored and when i say ignored, I mean no eye contact was made with me by our VIP guest as he spoke. I don't believe this was conscious on his part, perhaps a reflection of internal belief systems in action - I’ll never know.

Not perturbed (and slightly amused), I saw this as a challenge to shift the dynamics in the room. Coming from a mindset of adding value and believing we each have unique perspective and distinctive value to contribute, i began.

Using subtle techniques that are effective and easy to do, the dynamics in the room shifted. By the end of the meeting, I had become the focus for eye contact and conversation direction. An added bonus was receiving feedback afterwards from peers, acknowledging high-quality questions and contribution to the meeting.

Before we get into tactics, what’s important here is the underlying relationship we have with our self esteem. A healthy self esteem is a product of respecting who we are and living according to our core values. This feeds our self respect, our belief we matter, our confidence in who we are and how we make a difference. 

Psychologist and author of An Intelligent Life, Julian Short articulates this well “The closest you will ever come to knowing your self is to know your core values.” Feeling good about who we are has layers. If we judge our worth by our how we treat others, this is turn gives rise to emotions and feelings about whether we’re a good person (or not). More than this, it’s who we are during the most  challenging times when our true colours are on show. Treat others with kindness and dignity and it’s who we are.

In contrast, low self esteem promotes an unhealthy level of anxiety about the value of our opinions and contributions, sometimes creating beliefs around having to “get it right” for us to be accepted or to not be rejected.

The greater our success, the more important self esteem is to embracing recognition and experiencing fulfilment with success. The term success refers to positive achievements of any scale, small through to large. For example, we might complete a report, on time that’s well written/ researched and receive positive feedback from senior colleagues. In the this example, we might now be on the radar for higher profile projects or greater responsibility. Without a healthy self esteem, our successes can magnify feelings of self-doubt, fraud and a fear of discovery.

Most of us have some degree of negative self talk, when this becomes the predominant voice directing our thoughts, our perspective becomes one of anxiety and perceived rejection that maybe we’re not good enough, smart enough, educated enough, beautiful enough, (insert your challenge here) to be worthy of a persons attention, compliment, public recognition or love.

Let’s explore some techniques to shift the dynamics in a meeting room.  Time to play… 

Tip One: BE BIG  - This is about territory

Physically take up as much space as you can and be visible (within the parameters of the meeting room setting). Let’s get specific, this means hands on the table where they can be seen and elbows out to the side as much as is comfortable. Hands on your lap take up less space and subconsciously communicate you have something to hide. If there is an empty chair next to you, you can drape your arm along the back or rest an outward elbow on the edge. This is typical behaviour by any alpha males in the room - take notice at the next meeting. Posture is important, sit up, shoulders back, my personal observation is  women have a tendency to slightly round their shoulders forward making themselves “smaller”. If it’s an issue, get a properly fitted bra. Really!

Tip Two: BE CERTAIN - This is about self belief. 

It’s an attitude of “I will prevail”. One of the give-aways of uncertainty is excessive head nodding and it’s something we might do without awareness whilst speaking. The “yes nod” (nodding continuously, while speaking or being spoken to), communicates a desire to be liked, a need for external approval or desire to end an uncomfortable discussion by agreeing to what’s being said. A small amount is ok to communicate encouragement or build rapport and when you genuinely agree with what’s being discussed. The point is, be aware if it’s a crutch and ask a trusted colleague for feedback if you’re unsure.

Tip Three: BE PRESENT - This is about focus

Bring a laser like focus to the person speaking, so they feel like the most important person in the room. Stillness is important, no fidgeting, no phone checking and only write brief note points if absolutely necessary. When the person speaking makes eye contact, they will feel your intense focus because you’re looking at them as if you are checking out the colours in the iris of their eye. They will feel the difference (from others in the room) and are most likely to look back regularly to see if you’re still “looking”. Commonly in meetings people may be physically present, but their eyes and gaze communicate they’re in TV viewing mode and not really present. A side note, if the person is someone you feel uncomfortable around, focus on the bridge of their nose just between their eyes.

Tip Four:  BE RELEVANT - This is about emotion

Building on the above point, now we’ve established presence, let’s take things up a notch. So far we’ve created territory, we’ve brought self belief and focus, the next step is to add value to the person speaking and the room. When we’re truly focused on what is being said, we’re thinking about the meaning of what’s being said, beyond the words themselves to a central theme. For example: how this ultimately impacts customers, clients, colleagues etc? What emotions are relevant, is it about reducing frustration, inspiring others, rebuilding trust? When the discussion is connected to a central theme, this can reduce nit-picky discussion about specifics.

Acknowledge when someone shares wins, frustrations or sensitive information. Keep it simple: “Thanks John, this message is a great reminder to the team about XYZ”, or “Thanks John what a fantastic outcome, I acknowledge your persistence to make this happen”, or “Thanks John, I appreciate you sharing what it took, moving forward with this, what are your thoughts for XYZ.”

Tip Five: BE VOCAL - This is about vocal presence

There are two considerations here. Firstly, if you’re not used to speaking up in meetings, use your voice! If you’re not clear about whats being discussed, ask a question or several and get clear on the outcome or purpose of the meeting or topic being explored. If its not clear to you, there’s a good chance others might not be clear either. Again keep it simple: “what outcome are we wanting to achieve for this meeting/ project?",  rather than "I don't understand."

Secondly, when you speak, using downward inflection at the end of sentences communicates authority and certainty (think of how a newsreader speaks). In contrast, upward inflection creates a questioning tone and communicates uncertainty. Your upright posture will help with voice projection, after all we want to hear the valuable perspective you bring!

These skills and techniques are used to  shift energy and create status within a room hierarchy (think theatre sports and improv comedy). With status we develop assertiveness, presence and charisma.

“How does who we’re choosing to be during meetings, match who we want to be and who we are at our shining best?”

I invite you to play with some or all of these and together build dignified female assertiveness and leadership presence in meetings and our work environments. l’d love to to hear about the difference these make for you.

If you enjoyed this, head on over to kerryngamble.com for insights and opportunities to build confidence capital. Check out the Speak With Confidence Checklist to banish surprising speech habits that undermine confidence.

Kerryn's mission is building confidence capital in women, to address the leadership gender imbalance. Kerryn works with ambitious women to rewire their self-confidence for success on their terms. Kerryn speaks on self-leadership, overcoming self doubt, people pleasing and procrastination. Find out more at kerryngamble.com  Email via kerryn@kerryngamble.com

Kerryn is Vice President of Professional Speakers Australia (VIC, SA, TAS), Founding Director of CORE Potential, creator of Results Roundtable, members of the Australian Institute of Training & Development and International Coach Guild. 

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