Kicking yourself for not saying something at a meeting? Here’s how to speak up skillfully  

Jul 13, 2021 /

This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from people in the TED community; browse through all the posts here.

Ever silently berate yourself at work for not standing up for a colleague, letting people say things that are inaccurate or misleading, or just allowing others to talk over you? 

“At work, you don’t always say what you think needs to be said, and it’s not just you,” says Molly Tschang, a consultant, executive coach and business consultant, in a TEDxBeaconStreet Talk. “Your co-workers are holding back, too.”

All this tongue-biting is not only self-sabotaging, but it’s detrimental to your team and your workplace. That’s because when you hold back, “neither you nor your organization are fulfilling your true potential,” explains Tshang, who helps CEOs and senior management leaders communicate more effectively.

Of course, it’s not always so easy to speak up. Tschang offers four tips to help you do it skillfully.

1. Drop anything that’s getting in your way  

Before your meeting, presentation or call, get ready. “You can make the work harder or easier before you utter a single word,” says Tschang. “Let go of emotions that won’t help you objectively see the situation or come across the way you want to be heard.” 

2. Set the right tone 

You may be feeling annoyed, impatient, apprehensive or anxious, but try to focus on your positive feelings — like curiosity, excitement, confidence and gratitude — instead. Ask yourself this, suggests Tschang: “Would you rather help a complaining colleague or one who first acknowledges and appreciates you? Would your boss be more receptive if you’re defeatist and timid, or hopeful and self-assured? Choose the energy that supports how you want to be perceived and the work to be done.” 

3. Make space for other voices — and not just the loud ones 

According to Tschang, many meetings — and organizations — can be divided into two camps: the noisies and the quiets. She explains that “quiets are the voices or viewpoints we don’t hear enough of,” while “noisies are the dominant voices hogging airtime. Their opinions can sway the group’s thinking.” But she emphasizes that “it’s not good or bad to be either. The opportunity is to benefit from all voices.”

Ideally, the meeting leader will step in to ensure that the noisies and quiets are more or less equally represented. But that doesn’t always happen. However, “any member, including you, can and needs to raise awareness” — so you can bring attention to the fact that either some extroverts are preventing others from being heard or some  introverts aren’t getting a chance to enter the discussion.

For example, if noisy Sam is going on and on, you could jump in as soon as he takes a breath and say, “Sam, I appreciate your passion and expertise. We’re fortunate for it. I’m actually a bit lost. Would you kindly sum up your main points in a sentence or two?”

4. Listen 

In addition to clearing the way for quiets to talk, you can do the same for people who are expressing less conventional ideas. “You must hear all relevant voices, especially the dissenting or unpopular ones,” says Tschang. Especially if your meeting requires your group to reach a consensus, this will allow you to address potential misunderstandings or disagreements before they escalate or develop into a bigger problem.

And after you — politely — overthrow the noisies, resist the urge to take over the meeting with your own opinions. “As MIT Media Labs research tells us, members of high-performing teams talk and listen roughly equally,” says Tschang. “They keep contributions short and sweet.”

If you still feel nervous about speaking up after reading this advice, realize that your input might actually be helpful to others. After all, many of us are so caught up in our own worlds and with our own issues that we may not realize the impact we’re having on others. As Tshang puts it, “If someone felt disrespected by you or thought you were missing key information, wouldn’t you want to know?”

And if you’ve thought, “What’s the use of saying something? It’s not going to make any difference,” think again. While it’s true you can’t single handedly stop a chatty coworker from dominating meetings, your speaking up can help relieve some of your feeling of powerlessness. “We’re all part of the problem and solution,” says Tschang. “No one needs to accept dysfunction and sit frustrated on the sidelines.” You can also use your voice to ease other people’s frustration and invisibility by spotlighting them.

Speaking skillfully takes time and practice — so be patient with yourself and with your colleagues — but the effort is worth it. “Finding your voice, one that’s effective and authentic to you, is how you can be who you are and say what needs to be said,” Tschang says.

Watch Molly Tschang’s TEDxBeaconStreet Talk here: