Subtle Exclusion: Owning the Power of Your Voice

sign with amplify your voice during protest

During a recent conference session on ‘Being Heard Even When You Whisper’, I discussed three silencers — blatant exclusion, subtle exclusion, and self exclusion — that keep you from using your voice to full effect.

Blatant exclusion involves those moments when someone tells you point blank just why you don’t belong — why you don’t fit with the group, the team … whatever. It’s hurtful and unproductive for that person to speak that way — and they also just gave you useful information about who they are. 

Alternately, self exclusion occurs when you take yourself out of the game — all those times you tell yourself that you are not ready, you are not enough, or you don’t belong. In these moments, you are not as right as you could be. Also, you prevent yourself from speaking up or speaking your truth. 

Subtle exclusion is challenging to detect and decipher and it can be insidious. If someone is treating you in a way that feels exclusionary, you may build an internal narrative around that. As a result, subtle exclusion can take on a life disproportionate to reality. You internalize the voice of the person you believe is excluding you as well as those you contact for validation, comfort, or other reinforcement. Unhelpfully, the insightful voice of your inner critic is also weighing in.

The Incident

I have many experiences with subtle exclusion — as the recipient and sometimes, while unintentional, the giver. One powerful incident occurred when I was in a corporate Human Resources (HR) role.

Some memories stand out. They sit within you and talk to you. They send you messages about how you operate, how others perceive you, and the behaviors that you feel you ‘should’ have. That’s how this one stays with me.

Early in my HR career, I was in a conference room surrounded by senior executives of the organization. You know who I mean: they have X-VP or C-something in their titles. It’s too distant a memory for me to recall the topic, but I sure remember the incident. One of the leaders (whom we will call Chris) shot a harsh look in my direction after I’d asked a question and said something like, “I’m not sure you know enough about this situation to weigh in.” I had a rare moment of speechlessness. I mean, I’d asked a question indicating that I wanted to know more about the situation. The implication felt like, “What do you know about business from your HR role?”

A couple of good things happened after that. First, a colleague we will call Pat came to my defense immediately and with passion. In my speechless state, that was much appreciated. Also, I had a conversation with Chris shortly after the meeting. Insights from that incident included the importance of allies and the power in daring to stand your ground.

Recognize and Value Your Allies

Relationships matter. When Pat stood by me, it’s true that I was initially surprised. I knew we had a good working relationship but I had not fully recognized the level of support I could anticipate. My eyes opened up to other connections involving mutual trust and I didn’t feel as alone anymore.

Look around and see the people around you with new eyes and identify those likely to be willing to give you support. If you aren’t sure, look for times when they were trustworthy, supportive of your ideas, or vocal on your behalf. These are the signs of someone who is and will be an advocate and ally. 

Be sure to signal back your appreciation and willingness to stand by them, too. We all need a voice to support us now and then. Knowing you have those relationships can lift you up on the heaviest days.

Dare to Stand Your Ground Graciously

After that meeting, Chris walked with me back to my office and asked to talk with me. It was not an easy discussion for either of us. For me, I felt it was important to explain that I added value beyond whatever limits had been perceived in that meeting. 

None of us are just one thing. You are a unique combination of strengths, values and potential. I often help my clients design the story they can tell. It’s not just technical knowledge or professional experience that adds value. It is also the ability and willingness to share talents and gifts with others. When others devalue our story, we have an opportunity — and perhaps a responsibility — to educate them. 

In our discussion, Chris said the comment was misdirected angst suppressed from an earlier issue with a different colleague. It wasn’t about me, Chris said. Well, I responded, it sure felt like it was about me — yet I was willing to accept the apology. I also gave more context around my thinking, thus my question in the meeting. I didn’t seek his agreement — and simply shared my context. After we reached our place of honesty, I was relieved we had talked about it — and I was free to move on.

Working through the conflict actually improved our relationship and created a small foundation of trust. If left unresolved, that dismissiveness could have lingered with me. Even if it had been directed at me, it didn’t need to be handled in a defensive speech entitled: “What I bring to the table!” and I was grateful to have other options. 

There is no doubt, you will encounter moments of subtle exclusion over the course of your career. You can share your strengths, your contributions and your value by calmly stating that the other person said things that were hurtful, incorrect, or insensitive. Use “I statements” such as “When this situation happened, I felt/thought/saw this result. I don’t like that result and would like to avoid that in the future. How do we ensure that doesn’t happen again?”

The Choice

While it may hurt in the moment, you don’t need to stay in that circumstance. Instead, step back and assess the message you choose to take from that event. In this choice, consider:

  • What do I know about my reasons for being in this room and the strengths I have to share — regardless of what one person thinks or says?
  • Who are my advocates and allies who will help me reinforce my importance in this situation?
  • What benefit would be served if I talk directly to the excluding person in order to name and address what I’m feeling based on their actions? 
  • If I choose to have that conversation, how will I choose my words so that it is productive and not defensive?

Resolving big and small conflicts will increase trust and engagement in the work we do with others. If you can truly let it go without recycling the incident ad nauseum, you may not need follow up or resolution. When you notice it keeps coming back to you in one form or another, however, it may just be time to prepare for a respectful conversation about it.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: