From challenge comes change: how women in business can effectively challenge in the workplace

Written by
Kath Burlinson, tutor, RADA Business

08 Mar 2021

08 Mar 2021 • by Kath Burlinson, tutor, RADA Business

To help businesswomen feel more empowered to take on challenging conversations, RADA Business tutor, Kath Burlinson, shares her advice.

Managing challenging conversations effectively takes courage and confidence, and with the majority of business communications having moved online, these conversations are now even harder.

RADA Business’ research report, 'All the workplace is a stage', found that women are 60% more likely than men to say they never feel comfortable expressing themselves at work. Meanwhile, their report 'Beating workplace performance anxiety', found that women are also 58% more likely than men to feel anxious when giving a presentation, or 42% more likely than men to feel anxious when spontaneously being asked to comment or give ideas in a meeting.

If women in business are finding it more difficult to communicate effectively at work in a range of scenarios, challenging effectively can feel particularly hard. However, by helping women to develop and flex their leadership and communication skills, women can learn to ‘lean in’ to challenge, with confidence and gravitas.

How can we practically prepare for a challenging, virtual conversation?

There are a few practical things you can do to hold your space when communicating virtually. Firstly, make sure your camera is in the right position. Your camera should face you front on and your eyes should be roughly two-thirds of the way up the screen. Ensure you are lit adequately from the front. Avoid backlight – i.e. a major light source shining from behind you, such as a lamp or overhead light.

We all tend to want to make a connection with the people we’re talking to. This means we are eager to look at the faces on our screens when we present, yet this can actually hinder the delivery of our message. At RADA Business, we train people to look at ‘the green dot’ when presenting on video calls - the light that usually appears next to your camera when it is turned on. Whether it's built into your machine, or you're using separate hardware, ensure your camera is as close to your own eye level as much as possible. By keeping this focus, your message is likely to be received more directly and land more effectively.

Give people the ability to see more of you. Think about showing yourself from the mid-chest up but still remembering the two-thirds-eye-level rule.

Finally, before a meeting, reduce whatever it is you are hoping to say to three main points that you can keep returning to.

How can we mentally and physically prepare ourselves for a complex conversation?

When we talk about preparing ourselves, we don’t just mean mentally, but physically as well – we call this the embodied process.

Shake your body out before you start your meeting, so that it feels loose and relaxed.

Sit upright in your chair, shoulders open, with your legs uncrossed and feet planted firmly on the floor. This will help to ground you when you’re on a video call and help prepare you for the conversation - giving you a strong base to operate from. This stance also allows your lungs to have full capacity, so you can breathe deeply and set your voice free. Although you are communicating virtually, remember the space you take up in the real world, and this will portray itself over video as well.

Mentally rehearse the situation and the outcome you are hoping to achieve, this will help you to keep your goal in mind.

When we feel nervous, we can forget to breath properly. Breathe slowly and rhythmically throughout your meeting, so that your mind and body feel connected. 

How can we effectively challenge in the workplace?

By using our body, breath and voice, we can manage the situation, stay calm and help to assert authority.

When taking part in a challenging conversation, we may often feel the need to fill silence. However, before speaking, remember to pause and breath out, as it buys you time to develop a thought. Then use "one breath, one thought" as opposed to blurting out a flustered response in a difficult or pressured situation.

Luckily, virtual calls make it harder for people to interrupt, however if someone tries to, be clear and direct. You can simply say ‘I’m speaking’, with a polite smile and continue as you were.

Finally, use your voice to establish your authority. Vary your pitch and tone to keep people engaged and remember to end your sentences on a full stop, so that they are making statements and not asking constant questions. Take your time when speaking. After all, what you have to say is important.

The world-leading tutors at RADA Business help women develop their leadership abilities at three key career stages. To learn more about their Executive Presence, Impact and Influence, or Stepping up with Confidence for Women programmes, please visit

Kath Burlinson PhD is a professional theatre director and communications skills coach, with extensive experience of leading training and development programmes for executives and CEOs.

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