Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Don't wait to be asked: Take a permission audit of your speaking

Almost as soon as I'd published Michael Melcher's great guest post, Do you auto-apologize? Time to do a sorry audit, reader Miriam Gordon tweeted that I should turn next to a "permission audit" for women speakers.

The more I thought about that, I realized there are two sides to asking permission in ways that don't benefit women speakers: One is asking for permission when you don't need to do so. The other is waiting to be asked, as if you needed someone to grant permission.

Asking permission when you don't need to do so can take many forms. It's that upward inflection many women make at the ends of sentences--the tonal change that makes it sound as if you're asking a question, even when you're making a statement. That has always sounded hesitant and permission-seeking to my ear, as if the speaker isn't sure she has the right to say the words coming out of her mouth.

The ask for permission can be straightforward, too: "Are you ready for me to start?" "Do you want me to stop and take questions now?" "May I say something?" "Can we take a five-minute break?" "Do you mind if I speak next?" It's polite and correct, but you may as well make that inflection. It suggests you don't know whether you have standing to speak and do. As this post suggests, it's one way to make sure you never, ever get anything done. Someone--usually someone who isn't waiting for permission--will be happy to talk you out of it. And that makes me wonder: Are you asking permission because you want someone to talk you out of it?

Waiting-to-be-asked is more passive. It happens when we hesitate to speak, to interject or interrupt, or to suggest ourselves as speakers or leaders: We're waiting to be asked, or feel that, without having been asked, we need to do the asking to get permission first. When no one asks, you feel even worse, of course, but haven't done anything positive to help yourself. Trust me, others are not waiting to be asked--and are getting those hearings, speaking gigs, and raises. Check out this post, Successful women don't wait to be asked, that I found through reader Bobbi Newman.

What can you do on a practical level to put this permission audit and some corrections into play? Here are a few ideas, and I welcome yours in the comments:
  • Think about why you're asking permission or waiting to be asked:  Is it a confidence issue, a need for reassurance, feeling as if you lack authority? Do you want someone to talk you out of it, so you're not responsible? All those things may be real, but you don't need to undercut yourself with your words to fix them. Get good at preparing to speak, and remember: Your audience, whether it's a small meeting or a big crowd, usually can't tell you're nervous or lacking in authority unless you give that away with your words or manner.
  • Turn those non-questions back into real statements: If your voice rises at the ends of statements and you don't mean to sound like you're asking permission, stop that self-sabotage. Instead, reframe your sentences to make them more declarative. Think about where to emphasize words other than at the sentence's end, and with something other than an upward inflection. (Consider the difference between a higher inflection here--"I'm ready to tell you about the new data?"--and here--"I'm ready to tell you about the new data." You'll automatically sound more energized and confident, and you'll confuse your listener less. If need be, record yourself during a presentation, then listen to the audio, noting which sentences sound like questions. Rewrite them and practice for the next time.
  • Make a mid-sentence course correction: Next time you find yourself asking permission or sounding as if you are, stop yourself. Pause. Correct yourself, mid-sentence if need be: "Are you ready for me--I see we're ready. Let's begin." Over time, practice until you no longer need to stop yourself, mid-ask. 
  • Plan some strong, declarative ways to break into conversations, start meetings or otherwise avoid asking permission:  Replace "May I say something?" with "Here's what I think" or "I have a different perspective." Change "Do you want me to take questions now?" or "Do we have time for questions?" into "Let's take some questions," and let the organizer cut you off when needed.  Remake "Can we take a five-minute break?" with "Excuse me" and leaving the room.
  • Figure out whether you're waiting to be asked, and act in the opposite way: If you find yourself looking at a conference notice and thinking, "I'd love to speak there," or leaving a meeting wishing your good idea had been featured, ask yourself whether you're waiting to be asked. Then pick up the phone or send an email asking the organizer how you can get on the program, and indicating your interest. You'll never know until you try.
  • Enlist a friendly listener: Get a colleague or trusted friend to listen for those times when you ask permission but don't need to, and get her feedback privately. You'll learn a lot, and you'll be helping to remind her to avoid this habit herself.
Do you ask permission too much when you speak--or wait to be asked? Share your thoughts in the comments and let us know your advice and tips.

Related posts: Jump in, don't apologize: Tina Fey on using improv skills to speak up

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