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Minimized, dismissed, interrupted: What to do when you're not being heard at work

Women’s opinions have always been disproportionally minimized in the workplace, both in the office and remotely. Negotiation expert Alexandra Carter shares three powerful ways to be recognized.
Alexandra Carter, U.N. negotiator and bestselling author of \"Ask for More,\" breaks down how women can turn their professional lives around, starting with the way they talk to themselves.
Alexandra Carter, U.N. negotiator and bestselling author of "Ask for More," breaks down how women can turn their professional lives around, starting with the way they talk to themselves.Morgan Triska Media

Joyce, the North American COO of a multinational company, walked out of a meeting with her global management team feeling like she might also walk out the front door of her office – and not come back.

For months, she had attempted to advise her company on ways they should include North America in global decisions. She knew her ideas would make their company more profitable and efficient. But every time she spoke up, she felt minimized, dismissed and increasingly not consulted at all. She loved her job and her team, but needed to find a way to make her voice heard.

Women’s voices have always been disproportionally challenged in the workplace. Sometimes, they’re challenged by omission – a senior woman somehow doesn’t get invited to a leadership meeting – but other times, women are directly interrupted, dismissed or have their ideas appropriated by a man.

And since COVID-19, we’ve now figured out that this phenomenon exists whether you’re in the office or working remotely. In fact, research shows that women feel even more pressure to be succinct and “likable” virtually than they do in person, exacerbating those imbalances. The shutting down of women’s voices is a structural problem, and we won’t be able to rectify it until people in power of every gender make it a priority.

But in the meantime, here are three powerful strategies to reclaim your voice at work.

Look in the “Mirror.”

The first step toward reclaiming your voice in the workplace is looking in the mirror. And no, this doesn’t mean searching for ways this might be your fault. When I refer to the “Mirror,” I’m talking about asking yourself a few questions to help you regain your power.

The questions we ask ourselves shape our reality and influence the way we show up in every room. Here are two questions I have used to help thousands of women regain their voices:

“What do I need?” and “How have I handled something like this successfully before?”

When you ask yourself what you need from a meeting, a boss, a workplace – or even what you need to support yourself – you move from a space of blaming yourself to preparing for action.

Joyce asked herself what she needed and realized there were two main things: first, she needed to be included in a weekly global strategy meeting where decisions were made; second, she needed recognition from her boss about the results she’d already achieved for North America. Armed with that knowledge, she set up a meeting to talk to him.

But before that meeting, we tackled the second of those questions: how Joyce had been successful in the past. Often, when we’ve been challenged at work we can forget that we have exercised our power before.

When we specifically remind ourselves of how we have done that, we build our confidence and remind ourselves of strategies that might work again. In this case, Joyce recalled a similar situation she had faced earlier in her career, when she had first been promoted to management at another company.

She’d been left out of a client meeting she needed to be in, and she managed to score an invite by persuading her boss that it would help him do his job better if she were there. She also remembered a time that she needed her management to recognize her results. She accomplished that by putting together a presentation and showing an abundance of data supporting her accomplishments.

Recalling these prior successes gave Joyce a blueprint for what to do next and reminded her that she was much more powerful than she realized.

Practice using your voice.

You’ve looked in the mirror. You’ve prepared. Now it’s time to use your voice.

If you are someone who freezes when you’re dismissed or challenged, it’s important to practice phrases you can use in the moment, when someone tries to shut you down.

For outright sexism, racism or personal attacks – like Imani, a Black woman law partner who was told, “Wow, you’re aggressive today,” – questions are an excellent tactical tool.

They force someone to explain themselves instead of putting pressure on you to justify their remark. In this case, Imani kept her composure and asked, “What makes you say that?” Then she allowed silence to fill the room. The white man who had been challenging her had nothing to say. Imani smiled and moved on with her remarks.

For other situations, where someone is engaging you on the substance of your words, practice phrases you can use to retain your power and achieve the outcome you desire. For example:

“I wonder if there is a space where our opinions overlap.”“I appreciate hearing an alternate perspective, but I still stand by what I said.”“I think we are saying the same thing, but that doesn’t seem to be getting through. Let me try again.”

Find words that work for you, have them ready, and watch as you automatically walk into rooms feeling more confident that you can handle anything coming your way.

Find another room.

Joyce succeeded in getting her seat at the table for those global meetings. Imani made her voice heard in the face of another person’s bias. But if you’ve tried everything and you’re still being shut down in every room you enter, then it might be time to find another room.

My friend, best-selling author Minda Harts, always says, “I belong in every room I walk into – but not every room deserves to have me.” If you’re not being heard and management isn’t open to change, it might be time to find a place where you’re not only heard, but celebrated.

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." Learn more about Alex’s work at