(Originally published on LinkedIn)
The coolest thing happened during a keynote presentation I recently gave at Direct Energy's Women in Energy empowerment event. I was invited to share my experiences and advice with the audience (women AND men) on how to lean in as a female leader and have an impactful voice at the proverbial table. There was one person in particular who came away highly inspired, greatly enlightened, and feeling bolder and more empowered. That person is the author of this post (yes, me, for fellow INTJs who want the obvious stated as a matter of record).
The magic moment came after my remarks, during the Q&A session. I was asked a number of thought-provoking questions, and as I shared my thoughts others would chime in, bringing vibrancy and diversity to the discussion. One question in particular sparked epiphanies: "How do you use your 'voice' when you need something – whether it'd be support, clarification, or tackling a tough issue?" I shared my thoughts, but then came the brilliant answers from the crowd. Audience member Karin: "I simply articulate – very clearly – what I need to be successful. I don't take it for granted that the person I'm asking something of understands the ask, why it's important and how he/she can play a direct role in helping." Mariam added: "I don't apologize for asking – whether it's questions or something I need. I find too often women apologize for asking anything in a business setting – whereas male counterparts don't give it a second thought and just get on it with matter-of-factly." (Wow – should I really have been the one up there speaking when the audience has these awesome insights?)
As I reflected on these deceptively simple how-to's, I realized I need to consistently practice both. As a naturally inquisitive person, I can usually be counted on to start a line of questioning when I'm learning something new, being asked to make a decision or commit support. (Asking questions and receiving data are my "happy places.") Usually my first words are, "I'm sorry, but I have some questions." (Mariam is hitting the buzzer right now to strike out the "I'm sorry" part.) And guess what Karin? I'm all too happy to ask what others need and how I can be of help to them, but when it comes to me asking or stating what I need, the words just seem to stay inside my head.
There are two lessons here. First, whenever you are speaking on a topic, no matter how experienced or "decorated" you may be in the subject matter, and whether it's to a group or an individual, the more you come to know, the more you realize you don't. Every day in life and every experience with other human beings are part of life's learning laboratory. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Life would be so boring if you knew everything! One of the biggest rewards I get when speaking with groups is taking so much away to add to my ever-growing collection of best practices, helpful advice and "aha!" moments I treasure.
Second, and this doesn't only apply to women, do not apologize for asking questions. Asking questions shows you care, that you want to be part of a solution by understanding the subject as best you can, and demonstrates your humility (because as we know no one has all the answers). Practicing lesson number two opens the door for you to get the benefits of lesson number one.
Thank you Karin, Mariam, Samantha, Lyesha and all the fabulous men and women I met for these two awesome gifts you gave me that I can assure I'm already practicing and will enthusiastically pass on to others, and use in my day job in HR.
(And maybe I can I come back some day to speak to your group again just so I can learn even more from you all.)