We’ve all been there: Sitting in a meeting and feeling hesitant or afraid to bring up an idea, ask a question, or (yikes!) disagree with a participant’s viewpoint. Or, as in my case, holding off on speaking up because my temperament is to listen and give myself time to process information before joining in (and that sometimes takes longer than the meeting allows!).
The next time the voice in your head says, “They’ll think my idea is stupid,” or “If I ask that question, someone might get upset,” think again. Your voice matters, and the world is not going to end if someone doesn’t like your idea or if another doesn’t like being disagreed with.
It helps to keep things in perspective...
“Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that the fear of speaking out is actually far worse than speaking in a meeting. That worst-case scenario you fear—being like Charlie Brown in the old Peanuts cartoons where the whole class is laughing at him—is not actually going to happen. In fact, the worst-case scenario if you speak out in a meeting ineffectively is that nobody pays attention at all and they forget you said anything.” —Art Markman, PhD, professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, in a Fast Company article.
Now, being invisible or forgettable isn’t great, but if you realize that’s probably the worst that will happen, you can begin to rein in your worst fears about speaking up in meetings— and get to the work of becoming better at it.
Let's get started...
First, Change Your Mindset
If you want to become more at ease with speaking up in meetings, know that it’s a learning journey. And that the first step is to change the thinking patterns and self-talk preventing you from contributing.
If you are inexperienced in your career or the industry, or are new to the company, or hold a junior position in the organization, you are more likely to be hesitant to speak up in meetings. Have you ever found yourself thinking, “I don’t know enough to say something valuable,” or “These people outrank me, so I should wait for them to talk first”?
If you answered “yes,” you’re not alone. But a simple mind shift can change those self-deprecating thoughts.
If you’re a novice in the room, remember that you’ve got fresh eyes, a new perspective. You’ve got questions that no one would think to ask—but perhaps should be asked.
In certain situations, even seasoned employees are hesitant to share their views in a meeting because of negative self-talk.
So, no matter your expertise or position, it helps to examine the self-limiting messages you’re sending yourself.
I love the three-step mind-shift examples offered in a recent Harvard Business Review article about speaking up in meetings. In brief, they are:
Shift 1: From “My idea may be incomplete” to “It could be the source of someone else’s breakthrough.”
Shift 2: From “It’s probably not my place to speak up” to “Silence is not in the best interest of the team.”
Shift 3: From “I want to sound intelligent” to “This is really about the collective intelligence of my team so we can all succeed.”
If you’ve been invited to a meeting, you’re being asked to bring your best to the team project at hand. You can’t do that, though, if you stay stuck in a corner with your insecurities.
So, that’s why the first step in learning to speak up—or learning any new behavior—is to examine your mindset, and find ways to shift to a more courageous, team-oriented perspective.
Stop Those "Don't Listen to Me" Behaviors
Sometimes people become hesitant to participate in meetings because in the past, they felt like their ideas or contributions weren’t heard, or went nowhere. It’s possible it happened through no fault of their own; but it’s also possible they’re contributing to the problem.
Think about what you might be doing in your speech or body language that gets in the way of your being heard...
Do you preface ideas with insecure hedging, like, “I know this might not be a good idea, but...”? If YOU doubt that your idea is worthwhile, I guarantee you others will, too.
Do you end every sentence with that sing-song lilt that makes you sound like you’re asking a question, not making a statement? “Up-talk” lessens your credibility and weakens your message.
Do you make yourself small by not sitting tall? Or by leaning back in your chair with arms crossed? Or by speaking in a near-whisper, all the while looking down at your desk? Believe it or not, people really do form opinions based on your physical “communication,” even if they do it unconsciously.
Another thing to think about: Your body language is a kind of closed feedback loop. Your slouched shoulders not only convey a negative message to others, but also, back to your brain—reinforcing your lack of confidence.
I worked with a young female physician once who was so nervous and felt so much pressure every time she sat in on “handoff” meetings at shift changes, she nearly froze when it was her turn to give her patient reports. She’d wait until all of the other doctors presented, which of course meant her anxieties had time to build to a crescendo. By the time she was called on, her palms were sweaty, her face was beet red, and she spoke in a halting, nervous manner.
Then, she and I hit on a miracle cure. At the next meeting, she positioned herself in front so she reported first. She told me later that the simple act of standing tall in the first-up position didn’t give her anxieties time to build. She breezed through her report. No more sweaty hands or red face.
The lesson here is, in order to be at ease with joining in on the conversation, we often need to first sweep away the cobwebs of our own self-negating behaviors.
Change your mindset and behaviors, and you’re ready for the next key step...
Be Prepared to Contribute
The more prepared you feel to add your voice to the mix, the easier it will be. Here are some ideas:
- Read the meeting agenda and prepare your thoughts ahead of time. Especially if you’re an introvert or simply need time to consider the topic before engaging in a dialogue, this is a crucial step.
- Write down one question you’d like to have answered or a point you’d like to introduce on a sticky note, and put it on your laptop or computer screen. That way, you won’t miss a beat when the time is right to chime in.
- Practice, out loud, what you want to say. Better yet, practice in front of a coworker or friend and get their feedback.
- Rehearse introducing yourself. Not just your name and title, but your specific interest in the meeting’s topic or goal and what you can contribute. A lot of people—especially women—don’t realize how much the quality of their introduction impacts their effectiveness in the meeting.
Listen to Courageous Leadership Institute CEO Cindy Solomon talk about how introductions make a huge difference. While her observations focus on women in meetings, I’ve found they apply to everyone, especially if they’re younger or new to the company.
- Sit. At. The. Table. You’re hardly in the best position to be a confident—let alone visible—contributor if you choose a chair that’s outside the meeting circle.
Alright then, you’ve made the necessary mind shifts and behavior changes, prepared, and now it’s time for the meeting to begin. What more can you do in the meeting to make contributing easier and more effective?
Speak Early and Use Conversation "On-ramps"
Here’s a great anxiety ice-breaker: Say something in the first 10 minutes of the meeting to get past your fears early.
Asking a question is a good way to participate and relieves you of the self-induced pressure to wait until you have something “intelligent” to add to the conversation. Just like my physician client who waited to be the last one to speak during meetings, the longer you wait to join the dialogue, the harder it will be to speak at all.
Here’s what I think is one of the best-kept secrets to easing into a meeting discussion successfully: conversation “on-ramps.”
One of the easiest on-ramps is to use your voice to support others in the meeting. In an article titled “How to Speak Up at Work When You’re a Quiet Person,” career coach Kimberly Van, who says she’s made the journey from shy to confident, says...
“When faced with a meeting or situation where I felt I had nothing to contribute, I lent my support to others. For instance, I would say, ‘I really liked Susan’s idea. I think it’s a process that will streamline our work a lot so it lessens customer complaints.’ Of course, these comments were only made when I genuinely meant it, but they made me comfortable with speaking up.”
But what if you want to interject an idea, a request, or a dissenting opinion? There are a number of on-ramp phrases that will help you do that. Just a few examples:
“I’d like to build on what [person’s name] just said...”
“This issue is new to me, so I’d like clarification on...”
“I see why that decision was made, but here are some new data insights...”
“I agree with [person’s name] in part, but I’d also like to add that...”
“I disagree with what [person's name] has just said and believe...”
“I'd like to add a different perspective for us to consider…”
If you’re still feeling a little hesitant to speak up, particularly if the idea or discussion is controversial, consider depersonalizing your input. In “9 Confidence Hacks to Help You Speak Up in Meetings,” The Smarter Manager consultancy gives some examples of taking the “I” out of what you say:
“Has anyone thought about...?”
“Can we revisit...?”
“Did anyone mention...?”
“Some people might say...?”
“Maybe we should also consider...”
I’d also add...
“Does this fit with our goals/values/KPI's...?”
“Can I play devil's advocate for a moment and suggest…”
Think about keeping a list handy of the on-ramp phrases that feel genuine to you, and you’ll feel more confident about jumping in.
Listen to and Learn from Others
This is pretty simple and straightforward. Just watch people who you think are really good at joining and contributing successfully to meeting discussions. Jot down the behavior or skill you see in the moment, and add it later to your list of “speaking up” tips. Then, try them out at your next meeting.
Understand When to Hold Back
There are a few times when it’s valid to hold off on lending your voice to a meeting:
When there are two minutes left on the clock. Unless your input or question is urgent, don’t risk making the meeting run overtime, especially if the group moved on from your topic an hour ago. Find another way to contribute that eleventh-hour thought, or wait until the next time the team meets.
When your idea or concern would be more appropriate for a one-on-one conversation. So often in meetings, individuals go off on a tangent that isn’t relative to the entire group. Or, they touch on an issue that should have been addressed with one key player before airing it in a meeting. Be aware and respectful of everyone’s time and keep the goal of the meeting in mind.
When your motive isn’t productive. Maybe you’re so angry at what someone just said you can barely think straight. Or perhaps you feel the urge to focus on your accomplishments—as opposed to the team’s. It’s best to resist impulses like these and sort out your thoughts and feelings later.
Manage the Special Challenges of Virtual Meetings
It’s ironic, isn’t it, that speaking up in a virtual meeting can be even more difficult than in person?
For one thing, other people in the meeting might not notice nonverbal signals you send when you want to speak, like leaning forward in your chair. Also, because people tend to multi-task more in virtual meetings, you might feel they’re not listening when you do contribute.
Here are a few suggestions for participating in a virtual meeting:
Turn your webcam on. You’re more likely to be noticed and listened to if people can see you, not your avatar.
Make a memorable introduction. Remember the earlier advice about introducing yourself from CEO Cindy Solomon? It applies here, too. If the meeting leader starts with introductions, make yours effective by making yourself memorable. If there’s no formal round of introductions, be sure to make yours the first time you speak.
Use more visible body language. People might not notice you leaning forward in your chair, but they will take note if you raise your hand.
Use Chat. If you are still too hesitant to ask your question or make your point vocally, or if you’ve tried and can’t get a word in edgewise, use the chat function.
Interrupt to make people aware you want to speak. It might feel rude, but in many virtual meetings interruptions are the norm, and this is simply flagging your desire to speak. For example, 'I'd like to add something when you've finished, Jane.”
Remember that speaking Up is Good for Business (and You!)
“Every organization needs people to find their voice. Whether it’s to elevate good ideas, call out problematic decision-making, or flag questionable behavior, speaking up is how teams arrive at the smartest, safest outcomes.” —Chris Weller, NeuroLeadership Institute
To one degree or another, we all have negative inner voices and nagging self-doubts that can prevent us from finding and using our voices. I love the way Dr. Steve Peters captures the problem and the solutions for self-defeating thinking in his book, “The Chimp Paradox.” In brief, he says if you shift your mindset and stop giving in to your “inner chimp,” you open up a world of opportunities.
Your ideas, insights, and perspectives are a welcome addition to the meetings you attend. Start by setting yourself a challenge to speak early, or ask one question in each meeting, or make one comment, following the advice I've shared here.
You can build from there and see how much easier it becomes. And you’ll watch your career develop as you grow in confidence.
p.s. Are you planning to make a presentation or attend a meeting any time soon with senior executives? When the stakes are high, do you have what it takes to influence and persuade those top executives to support your idea, budget proposal, or organizational change?
Learn to prepare for a presentation to senior decision-makers so that you influence and drive the decision-making process...
Want help with Storytelling?
There’s nothing quite like learning the art of business storytelling—live with master coaches. Please join us on January 21, 2022, at 3:30 p.m. GMT or 12:00 p.m. PT, for a virtual, one-hour complimentary preview of our Powerful Storytelling workshop.
You’ll walk away with the insights and tips you need to improve your storytelling skills in a business environment.