June 2022

A Seat at the Table

head shot of smiling woman with medium length straight light hair wearing glasses Dawn Stevens, Comtech Services

Remember those big family holiday dinners when you were young? The dining room table was only for adults and a temporary solution had to be found for the children – typically a fold-out table, in another room, set with mismatched, unbreakable dishes. In my own children’s case, it wasn’t even a table when we were at Grandma’s, but a large moving box with a tablecloth draped over it. Not only were they separated from the rest of the family, they didn’t even have a place to put their knees.

The only food at the children’s table was that brought to you on a plate. You couldn’t simply serve yourself another spoonful of mashed potatoes when your plate was empty. Instead, like the dog (who was often at least in the same room as the adults), you had to go beg for the table scraps if you wanted more.

Although the younger kids often enjoyed the freedom of the children’s table, taking full advantage of the opportunity to play with their food and talk with their mouths full, the older children were typically forced into a parental role – cutting food into bite-sized pieces, mopping up spilled drinks, and policing squabbles. The older you got, the more you gazed longingly at the other room, wondering when you would finally be old enough to be given a seat at the other table, and perhaps secretly hoping that your parents would have a fallout with some of your aunts and uncles to free up space.

A seat at the adult table symbolized so many things: you could be trusted not to embarrass your parents; you held a higher status than the kids left behind; you would be privy to the secrets the adults kept from the children; and, most importantly, you were old enough to be taken seriously. Your voice would be heard. You could speak for the children, represent their interests in important conversations held at that table.

Often when you finally were promoted to the adult table, the realization kicked in that the kid’s table was much more entertaining. At the adult table, you had to be on your best behavior; rules that were certainly not enforced at the kid’s table were in full effect – sit up straight; elbows off the table; don’t talk with your mouth full; don’t wear your napkin on your head; and many, many more. Conversations at the adult table were boring, and you weren’t invited to participate, even if you could have talked intelligently about the housing market or the various health issues facing your aging relatives. Your promotion to the table was likely due to space considerations or a grudging nod that it wasn’t fair for you to remain with those much younger than you, rather than any kind of invitation to participate as an equal.

The parallels to this familiar holiday occurrence are clear within our professional lives. I hear constantly from technical communicators longing for a seat at the developer’s table. The potential benefits are clear:

  • We’d hear about product plans and changes immediately.
  • We’d be able to more easily ask for information or clarification on topics we’re writing.
  • We’d be able to influence the direction of the product.
  • We’d gain respect from the developers as equals on the team.

We believe that a seat at the developer’s table will give us a forum to be heard and the opportunity to make a difference to our users’ experience.

Nevertheless, we are often not invited to the table, even when we ask to be. We take offense and we feel undervalued. But re-read those “benefits” for attending—they are self-centered, focused on what we might gain from the opportunity. What’s in it for the developers, and what is it going to cost them? Additional people at the table implies more time spent explaining and debating, slowing the design and decision process. It introduces more schedule conflicts to overcome (especially since very few technical writers I know have the luxury of supporting only one development team). In her Anatomy of Change ModelTM, Val Swisher points out that change is really about people and resistance comes largely from fear. Perhaps the lack of invitation is not so much disrespect, than the fear of change and the disruption it brings. We need to do a better job framing our request:

  • With first-hand knowledge of the design decisions, we’ll require less one-on-one meeting time with you to gather information.
  • Review times will be shorter because our content will be more accurate from the information we glean from the table.
  • Our knowledge of the users can help to prevent time-intensive rework by identifying problematic areas before time is spent in development.
  • Because words are our strength, we can record and distribute all decisions and action items from the meeting saving you time.

In other words, in order to effectively advocate for a seat, we have to understand the value we bring, not the value we receive, and, of course, we need to be able to follow through on whatever promises we make to gain our seat.

If after reframing, you’re still lacking the invitation, I point to Shirley Chilsom, the first African American woman in Congress, who said, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” If it’s important enough to you, compromise – find ways to get your foot in the door:

  • Promise to simply be a fly on the wall until they get used to your presence.
  • Ask to be present at only a designated portion of the agenda.
  • Suggest that you don’t need to attend every meeting, only once a month to start.
  • Ask for the meetings to be recorded and follow up on what you heard via email, giving them a chance to see that your input would be useful live rather than in writing.

As you work to be invited, keep in mind that like our childhood expectations for the adult table, once at the table, our professional expectations for the developer’s table are often not everything we dreamed they would be. There are rules to follow and an established pecking order. The seat does not guarantee a voice, let alone symbolize equality. However, rather than become disillusioned, perhaps we need to recalibrate our expectations and our approach. Instead of simple inclusion, are we really looking to transform the table in some way? To tear it apart and completely rebuild it into an image that we have? In that case, is it really a table we want to sit at in the first place? To continue the food analogy, is it serving something we want to eat? Perhaps we need to build our own table to which we invite the developers.

If we find we do want to sit at the table as it is currently built, we need to learn how to effectively participate within those boundaries. We have to be willing to put some brussel sprouts on our plate, even though we despise them. It is highly unlikely that everything will be sunshine and lollipops on day one. Remember, it takes time for a child to move up to the adult’s table, and even more time to bring about the transition from tolerated eavesdropper to welcome participant. We must take the time to listen and observe what goes on at the table, before we speak up. We’re not there to take over the dialogue, but to contribute. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received is to assume that everyone at the table already knows what you know, and in some cases are more knowledgeable about the subject than you. Your job is find a way to deliver new insights and new perspectives on that existing knowledge.

If instead, we find that we want a different table, we’re not without challenges. Now the onus is ours to define the objectives, the rules, the criteria for participating, and we must invite those we want to participate. Yet, instead of encountering the eager acceptance of a child who is invited to move up to the adult table, we may find reluctance to accept our invitation. It remains for us to prove, whether attendee or host, what’s it in for everyone else. Ironically, we see the table as a benefit to us, but effective table management and participation requires us to focus on how others will benefit.

The bottom line is that everyone wants to be heard, to be included, to be treated as equals, whether we are children at a holiday dinner, employees in the workplace, or marginalized individuals in society. The “table” has become a symbol for that opportunity. However, we are not always good guests or good hosts. For this reason, we’ve chosen the table as the theme for our Best Practices conference to be held online, September 19-21. We’ll be digging into to how to be good hosts our own tables, enticing the active participation of our team at our management table and our customers at our user experience table, and how to be good guests at the developer’s table and our own manager’s table. I hope you can join us.

About the Author: Dawn Stevens is CIDM’s Director and President of Comtech Services. She has over 30 years of practical experience in virtually every role within a documentation and training department including project management, instructional design, writing, editing, and multimedia programming.