Getting Your Voice Into The Room When You're Afraid To Speak Up
Updated: Mar 27
(Originally published in Forbes.)
Jane and Mark are both senior directors on the rise, but they share one thing in common that is starting to get in their way: a tendency to overly self-censor and hold back from speaking up in meetings. They arrived at this place in different ways. Jane is naturally introverted and has always shied away from speaking up in larger groups, especially when more senior leaders are in the mix, and Mark was recently promoted and is suddenly feeling way out of his league. They also both know they have to get over this hesitation to increase their visibility and impact at their company and to continue to progress professionally.
This tendency to hold oneself back in meetings, especially when feeling uncertain for any reason, is not uncommon at all. While different people hesitate from speaking up for different reasons, underneath these varied reasons is typically the same root cause: a feeling of fear based on the assessment that speaking up is somehow risky.
Situations and decisions we deem risky typically bring on a threat state in our brains, leading us to gravitate toward safer choices. And, due to a phenomenon called loss aversion, potential losses loom larger in our brain than gains. While these tendencies were an important part of our evolutionary wiring, they can also lead us astray by causing us to overestimate the risk of doing something versus not doing it. For example, while you may be focused on the risks associated with speaking up, there are also risks of not getting your voice into the room: Others may think you don’t have any ideas or simply don’t care, or they may see you as more of an order-taker than someone with perspective. Without them having the chance to get to know you and your capabilities, you run the risk of becoming literally invisible.
Many people will recognize their inner critic busy at work here. Your critic may tell you that what you have to say isn’t that important, that other viewpoints have more weight, that what you have to say doesn’t have enough “value add” or that you should wait until you have something better to say. This inner critic causes you to overly censor yourself and hold yourself to a standard that others don’t.
To combat these cognitive tendencies and your inner critic, you first need to get a more balanced perspective of the situation. Ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that could happen if I speak up?” Once you have conjured up your catastrophic thoughts, ask, “How probable is that?” Finally, also ask yourself, “What is the best thing that could happen?” Exposing your fears to the light of day -- and identifying the benefits of speaking up and the risks of not speaking up -- usually helps provide a more balanced perspective on the situation.
Unfortunately, though, you cannot just think yourself into confidence; you must, at some point, take the leap and actually do the thing you’re scared of doing. So, here are seven actions you can take to start getting your voice in the room more and increase your visibility. While being an effective and compelling communicator is ultimately about quality, not quantity, you first need to break out of the habit of holding yourself back and practice speaking up. These methods worked for Jane and Mark and may also help you.
1. Before each meeting, choose one agenda item or topic that you will address in the meeting. Preparing in advance will help ready you to add to the discussion. Commit to sharing your perspective regardless of whether it is contrary or redundant. If you’re unsure where to best contribute, you might ask your more senior colleagues where and how they want you to participate.
2. Set a goal. Before each meeting, set a goal for how many times you want to speak. While seemingly simple, this will give you a target to shoot for and motivate you to participate.
3. Hold your body “as if.” At meetings, hold your body as if you’re confident and have an important perspective to share. This includes good posture, leaning in, holding direct eye contact and generally being more expansive with your body. Holding your body “as if” primes your mind for confidence and sets you up to speak more freely.
4. Be one of the first to speak. Look for opportunities in every meeting to be the first to share your point of view. When you delay speaking, you allow more time to generate self-doubt about the validity of your opinion, and you run the risk of someone else sharing your idea.
5. Ask questions. Asking probing questions to better understand others’ viewpoints, suggestions and proposals is one of the easiest ways to engage in a meeting and can lead to more robust understanding and fruitful discussion for all attending.
6. Say the first thing that comes into your mind. The likely reality is that your ideas and perspectives are no less valuable than those of the other people in the meeting -- you’re just overly self-critical and not in the habit of sharing them. Start initially in “safer” settings, and practice speaking without censoring yourself; you will soon develop the ability to comfortably jump into a conversation without preparation.
7. Appoint a wingman. If you have a more verbose and trusted colleague in the meeting with you, ask them to pull you into the conversation for certain topics. A wingman can also be especially useful if you’re a woman and find yourself in male-dominated meetings in which you are either talked over or find your idea heard only after it’s subsequently voiced by a man in the room.
With time and effort, both Jane and Mark became more comfortable speaking up and saw the benefits to their performance and visibility within their company, and you can too. While speaking up -- especially in higher stakes situations -- may feel risky, for the sake of your career, it’s almost always worth the bet.