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How to claim a seat at the virtual table – including Zoom

This U.N. negotiation trainer lays out tips for effectively communicating in any online meeting.
Alexandra Carter, professor at Columbia Law School and world-renowned negotiation trainer for the United Nations.
Alexandra Carter, professor at Columbia Law School and world-renowned negotiation trainer for the United Nations.Nick Onken / Nick Onken

After last week’s presidential debate, this reaction quickly became one of the most popular Tweets:

For decades, women have worked hard to claim their space at the meeting table. Too often, they report being interrupted, passed over in favor of men who use all the airtime, or having someone else take credit for their ideas. When much of our country suddenly transitioned to telework this past March, some wondered: would it get easier for women to make their voices heard remotely?

The verdict: it didn’t. In fact, linguistic experts like Professor Deborah Tannen have spoken out about how in virtual communication, women feel even more pressure to be succinct and “likable” than they do in person, exacerbating those imbalances in everyday meetings. So how can you make yourself heard at a distance? Read on for five tips to claim your seat at the virtual table.

1. Negotiate over process in advance.

Some people report that they go to virtual meetings with ideas to share – but their comments go unheard because others chew up all the airtime. If you’re going to meeting after meeting where the meeting is over by the time they get around to asking your opinion, it’s time to try a different tack.

Instead, approach the meeting chair or department head in advance and negotiate over the process. Ask them how the next meeting will be structured, and advocate for some space. In doing so, make sure they know that making time for you will benefit them. “I have some insights to share with the team that I know will make our final pitch better. It should take no longer than 5 minutes. What would be a good time to build that in?”

When negotiating for airtime, always ask a question starting with “What” or “How.” For example: “How can we best work this in?” or “What time would be best for my comments?”

Rather than beginning with a verb – like “Can I have a few minutes?” – you’re starting with the assumption that you will speak, rather than asking permission.

2. Get there early.

Even virtual meetings sometimes start early, with people informally catching up and sharing thoughts. This is what’s known as the “pre-meeting” and if you’re looking to claim your seat at the table, you don’t want to miss it.

Many people think if they arrive right on time for their meetings, they’ve done their job. But sometimes, that informal discussion before the meeting, or the quick chat afterward, can be just as important as the meeting itself. You may get a chance to take people’s temperatures and find out what’s uppermost in their minds. Plus, attending the “pre-meeting” gives you one final chance to remind the person running the session that you have something to contribute.

3. Make yourself visible and offer value.

Want to get more airtime during meetings, or when decisions are being made? Make yourself visible outside the meetings. Check in with your manager regularly and ask how you can help. If you can, relay specific ideas that show initiative and make it easy for your manager to say yes.

During the pandemic, many people are learning how to do their jobs in different ways than ever before – often while dealing with changes at home. Managers may be just as overwhelmed as the people they are supervising. When you’re negotiating to get space at the bargaining table at work, one of the most effective ways to do that is often to make sure you’re uppermost in your manager’s mind and she sees you working to bring value.

One junior professional who hadn’t heard from her boss in a while started checking in with him once a week. “At first, I just said, ‘I’m here to help; let me know what I can do!’ But then I got more specific. I saw a new matter had come in, and I wrote to say, ‘I saw the news about ____ and I thought you might need research help with some of these newer issues. I could work on a memo for you this week.’” This time, she got a quick positive response.

During this time, relationships are critically important for self-advocacy. I always teach that relationships create the deal, and not the other way around. Good managers notice initiative, and if they see you as a contributor across the board, you’ll be in a better position when you need to advocate for yourself or others.

4. Manage interruptions using the “I/we” method.

If someone interrupts you, you can reclaim your space by using what’s called the “I/we” ask: “Here’s what I need and here’s how we all benefit.” In this way you claim your needs while letting others know it’s in their interest to do so. For example: “Bob, I have something to contribute here, and you’ll have a better sense of my ideas once I’m finished. I’d love to hear your thoughts at that point.” Telling Bob what is helpful (waiting until you’re done) rather than what isn’t (“Stop interrupting me!”) keeps things positive while also asserting your boundaries.

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5. Use amplification.

To make your voice heard, build a coalition for support.

You can do this by using a skill called amplification. This strategy came to prominence during President Obama’s first term, when women were outnumbered among his senior staff – and often felt unheard during meetings. The female staffers noticed that sometimes a woman would speak up and offer a point, but when a man later offered a similar point, people gave the man credit and the discussion then centered around him. So they started using a strategy they called “amplification:” when a woman raised her hand to make a point, another would then raise her hand and give the first woman credit for the idea. Gradually, President Obama started calling on women and junior aides more often, and in his second term, women gained parity with men among his senior staff.

Amplification means speaking someone’s name and giving them credit. And anyone, not just women, can be an ally who amplifies others. Obama’s senior staffers used amplification as a gender equity strategy, but it’s also a great way to lift others up more generally and create space for all people – no matter their gender, race, sexual orientation, or title at work – to be included at the table. When we amplify others, we lift everyone up and build stronger, more inclusive teams.

RELATED: Minda Harts: 5 big challenges women of color face in securing a seat at the table

We can amplify each other in online meetings by speaking up, but we have more options too. We can send “thumbs up” reactions, give non-verbal signs of support like head nods, or write supportive comments in the chat. So what’s the best way to gain allies and amplify your own voice? Be an ally yourself. Speak up and give credit to people around you, and ask for their support in meetings where you plan to speak up. In this way, you’ll know that you’re claiming your seat at the table while also helping others secure theirs.

Alexandra Carter is a professor at Columbia Law School, a world-renowned negotiation trainer for the United Nations, and the Wall Street Journal best-selling author of "Ask for More: 10 Questions to Negotiate Anything."