First-Class Coach: Meeting your superiors

How can I stop getting tongue-tied when dealing with senior management?

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 11 Oct 2010

Q: I get tongue-tied when I'm with senior management. I'm fine with my team and can be quite articulate, but in meetings with my superiors I clam up, mainly because I don't feel my ideas will be valued by my bosses.

A: Whatever the personalities and styles of these senior people, to you they are authority figures. There are two classic responses to people in authority, and they are polar opposites. For some, the automatic response is rebellion: they don't like being told what to do and react angrily to a boss who tries to control them - or who they perceive as doing so. For example, Ian Botham was notoriously rebellious when he was playing cricket for England, and it took a wise captain to handle him appropriately and get a good performance out of him.

The opposite reaction seems to be yours: fear of criticism renders you almost speechless, afraid to do anything that draws the attention of senior people to you, and convinced that your opinions will be deemed worthless.

These reactions were recognised years ago by psychologist Eric Berne in his influential 1964 book, Games People Play. He describes our 'transactions' (ie, interactions) with others as unconsciously being in one of three mental roles: parent, adult or child. A boss operating on the parental level, critical or caring, unwittingly forces the subordinate into one of the child roles - the adaptive child, who is compliant and tries to please; the rebellious child; and the 'free' child, who walks away. You, it seems, tend to play the adaptive role, eager to please and keen to avoid confrontation, and this may relate to your childhood experiences.

If, for instance, you had a controlling, judgemental father (or mother), you may well associate more senior people with him or her, automatically triggering the negative feelings you had as a child. This long-established neural pathway overrides your rational mind's attempts to reason that you are a capable person whose views are as valid as anyone's in the team.

In business, the most productive interactions are usually adult-to-adult, where judgment and criticism on the one hand and disruptive or passive behaviour on the other, are traded for facts and rationality.

But it's one thing to recognise the source of these feelings of inadequacy and another to overcome them. How can you build a new, more helpful mental pattern for these situations? I suggest you examine current reality a little more closely, because our perceptions can lag behind reality. On a scale of 0 to 10, with 10 representing supreme confidence, where are you now in terms of self-esteem? I'm willing to bet you're not at zero, so work out what's already going well. Start by unpacking recent occasions on which you've been with senior people: do you always feel tongue-tied or are there situations where you feel more confident? Can you recall any instances over the past three months when a meeting with someone in a position of power went well? What was your contribution?

I know several women who are now CEOs of large organisations who admit that earlier in their careers they were overcome with a sense of their own inadequacy when put in a similar situation to yours. What helped them was to become an observer, to focus their attention on the other participants and the way they behaved.

At your next meeting, try adopting the observer position. Which participants seem to use the meeting effectively, and how do they behave? And are there people who consistently fail to get their own way? Are there aspects of the successful behaviour that you could adopt (or adapt)? Could you find a colleague to bounce ideas off before meetings? That way, you'll get practice at speaking confidently, and if it doesn't go smoothly at first, you can try again. Also, work out which questions you'd least like to be asked and rehearse appropriate answers.

If you're worried about stating an opinion forcibly for fear of being wrong, practise introducing your ideas with phrases such as: 'I wonder if ...', 'Could there be an opportunity for ...?' or even 'What's your view of ...?'. These allow you to speak confidently while inviting others to consider your ideas and, if necessary, make good any gaps in your thinking.

Finally, ask yourself why you're included in these meetings. Maybe your younger, fresher view of the organisation's issues gives you insights unavailable to more senior management.

- Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have a problem you'd like her to tackle, e-mail:

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