Afraid to Speak Up In Meetings? 7 Tips for Talking Out

You're reluctant to speak up at meetings. The issue may not be that you don't have ideas to contribute, but that you're one of those people who prefer to reflect carefully on information before making pronouncements.

Other people may interpret this as holding back, fear of looking bad, or reluctance to speak on the record so you're not accountable. These perceptions can derail your career, so you need to address them. But how?

  1. Prepare. Whenever possible, get the meeting agenda in advance and set aside time to collect your thoughts about the issues that will be discussed.
  2. Educate. Learn about communication style differences that account for your preference for reflection as well as someone else's need for quick decisions. Share this information with team members and discuss how different styles bring value to the team.
  3. Communicate. Be up front in meetings about your thinking process. Use phrases like, "My initial reaction to this data is x, but I'll want more time to analyze the implications more carefully." Or, "There are many pros and cons to this decision, but if I had to make a decision right now, I would do x." Avoid being noncommittal or evasive. Assert your needs if necessary: "I want to talk to 2 more references before pulling the trigger on this hiring decision. I'll be ready to do that by 2 pm today."
  4. Challenge yourself. Consider whether fear may be what is holding you back from sharing objections, concerns, or ideas. Identify the precise cause of your fear...Being wrong? Looking foolish in front of the boss? Sounding nervous or inarticulate? Whatever your fear, face it and address it. Sign up for public speaking workshops, find someone to mentor you, get out of your own head. Make it a personal goal to comment at every meeting.
  5. Make your imagination work for you not against you. We all create stories about ourselves and how others perceive us. If we stumble over a slide in a PowerPoint presentation, we imagine that everyone else is replaying our mistake over and over in their heads like we're doing in ours. They're not. Some people probably missed the mistake entirely because they were focused on their own worries, and those who saw it have other, more important things to obsess about.  So, if you're going to let your imagination run wild, let it run wild in a place where good things happen. Refocus your negative imaginings of "the boss thinks I'm an idiot" to something more positive: "the boss sees that I have an impressive command of the data." Reining in the negative stories you tell yourself will minimize your speaking anxiety.
  6. Consider the culture.  Some managers say they want critical feedback, but react poorly when someone offers it. You may be reluctant to speak up out of fear  of being perceived as someone who is not a team player. First, reflect on how you can deliver your message so the person in power can hear it. If your manager likes facts and data, don't give her generalizations or intuitive observations; give her what she listens for. Conversely, don't offer detailed research if your boss just wants your bottom line opinion. If you're talking with people who need time to process information, the feedback might be more appropriately addressed one-on-one, where they have time to think, rather than in a meeting, where they might feel blind sided.
  7. Whenever possible align your feedback with company goals so it's clear that you're not indulging in naysaying or a personal disagreement but trying to stay focused on strategy.
  8. Value Your Values. If you have stopped speaking up because you work in a dysfunctional corporate culture where leaders encourage negative competitive behavior instead of collaboration, it may be time to seek another job.

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that people have invited you to the table because they want to hear what you have to say. They need your expertise, your thoughts and your ideas. So do your team a favor. Speak up!