One of the most difficult things for most women to do is get their ideas heard when they are in a room full of men. Men can be loud and assertive, if not aggressive, in order to shut down the ideas of others. At the extreme a discussion can turn into nothing more than a competition to see who will win – where the original objective – to find the best solution – is lost.
What is a woman to do in these situations? Can she get all of this ruckus back on track?
This is the situation that inspired me to start this website-
An article was being circulated with rave reviews – it discussed things women unintentionally do to stunt their careers. The example it used was how women conduct themselves in meetings. The article said men sit at the table and engage in debate while women sit along the wall and remain silent. Men interpret the women’s behavior to mean that women are timid and lack self-confidence. The article advised women to jump into the fray (which is admittedly difficult) and get their ideas heard.
That article bugged me…really, really bugged me!! But, I couldn’t quite figure out why. It seemed to tell women to act like men. Having spent a lot of time in the situation they described, it seems the authors are asking women to do the impossible – be more aggressive than the most aggressive man in the room! That’s not going to happen with most women! I thought about myself in those situations and I suddenly realized that I don’t sit at the conference table – I avoid it whenever possible!
But when I am in a room with 25 loud, heavily opinionated men I take over! I am notorious for it!
But how does that happen if I don’t sit at the table and don’t jump into the fray? Then it hit me! OMG! What I do is so second nature now that I don’t even think about it anymore. I just do it.
Understanding the Conference Room
As a young Air Force officer I learned seating at the conference table followed a protocol. At the head of the table was the Commander. To his right, the Vice (or Deputy) Commander. To his left, the Commander of a lower tier organization. Moving down the table the seats were filled in by rank and position. “Having to sit” at the table meant you were in charge of an operation and the person at the head of the table will turn to you for answers…which you better have!
The people sitting at the table had their support team sitting behind them along the wall. If the lower tier Commander needed more detailed information he would turn to support team for those specific details.
Looking around the table you see the man in charge and his deputies – the core leadership team of the organization. Looking around the room you see the more detailed levels of the organization’s leadership structure.
Being invited to a meeting meant you had clout. Sitting at the table meant you were important.
The conference room and its table provided Status and hierarchy to the men.
Why do your male colleagues sit at the table? – Status. If they don’t really have it, they can project that they do. That’s important to men.
As a woman, I couldn’t care less about Status. I understand something more important than Status – I understand Power. And I know sitting at the table does NOT give you Power. Sitting at the table makes you very Vulnerable.
I always think of the Roman Empire when I talk about this. When you sit at the table your back is towards your support team. Your vulnerability comes into play when you turn to your support team for support and instead you hear- “Well, that’s not entirely correct. What we are doing is XYZ instead…..”
You were just stabbed in the back by your support team. The person who stabbed you in the back now removes your dead body from the chair and assumes your position. I’ve seen it done countless times. I’ve seen commanders set up to be stabbed in the back…and it’s a ballsy thing to do!!
The point is that when you sit along the wall, no one is going to stab you in the back. They can attack but you will see them coming. It may seem like you are playing it safe but if you sit in the right seat you can command the entire room. And that is more important than sitting at a dumb table!!
This is about power and you using that power to lead that group of boisterous men back to the real objective – to find the best solution for a problem.
Find the Power Seat
I cannot over emphasize how important it is to understand the dynamics – the feel – of the room. In every meeting everyone assumes their usual seat. Sit back and watch what they do. Learn the dynamics. Is there someone who sits along the wall but is involved in most conversations, if not leading them? Is there someone who initially engages but always withdraws?
Look at the setup of the room. From the head of the table, look to the right – is the door on that side of the room?-most of the time it is. Most conference rooms are set up so the person at the head of the table has a clear view of the door and a view of the person of second highest status at the same time. This is a power statement. The person at the head of the table has command over the room – power -while being protected from vulnerability. (Are there any chairs behind the head of the table? Probably not.)
The power seat is located between the head of the table and the door. Extend a line across the end of the table to the wall. Now from the head of the table sweep starting at 90 degrees across the chairs along the wall stopping when the Vice Commander’s chair starts blocking your view. Make sure the Vices’s chair is pulled out as if someone were sitting in it. One chair (maybe two) will catch your attention. You will feel it. That is the power seat.
If the door is on the left hand side, then the power seat will probably be on the left. If the door is aligned with the head of the table, the power seat is usually the first chair along the wall.
You have to feel it out.
From the power seat you will have an unobstructed view of the head of the table and vice versa. The power seat is always within the periphery vision of the head of the table. You should also have a pretty commanding view of the entire room. That is critical! If you are sitting at the table, you don’t see what the people seated behind you are doing. You also don’t have a good view of the people along the opposite wall or the people on your side of the table.
Sitting at the table is disempowering!
Sit in the Power Seat and use it! See Article – Using the Power Seat
The empowered woman knows the difference between status and power.
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