Have you ever been too scared to speak up at meetings? Knowing that if you had to speak up – whether about a certain topic or to certain people, would result in an unhealthy level of anxiety?

Chances are if you have had a few jobs by now, you may have been in this position at some point – even fleetingly.  So what causes it and what can you do?

Start with the ‘when’: There are many reasons as to why you may be in this position. Maybe you have always felt that way in your job or did something change? Do you only feel that way being around certain people or in certain situations?   Or is it all the time – eg. the anxious feeling that goes hand in hand with the dread of speaking up, as soon as you walk in the door? Think about when those feelings appear and that is your starting point.

The trigger: Let’s take an example: you know the ‘when’ – it’s when you have to attend weekly team meetings with the manager.  There are 20 people in the room – colleagues and friends you have known for a while.  Despite this, when it comes to contributing to the discussion, you sit quietly thinking about what you could say, but don’t.  It’s like you have frozen in time and nothing will come out of your mouth.  You don’t feel this way a lot of the time – just those awful team meetings that you dread.  Each week you come out of the meeting wondering how long you can get away with saying nothing or which of your colleagues are gossiping about how little you contribute.

What’s the cause? What is it specifically that makes you feel unable to speak up? Do you feel others are speaking so much in the meeting that you don’t get the opportunity to speak and don’t know how to interject? Are you normally comfortable speaking to your team members and Manager outwith those team meetings? If so, chances are you feel intimidated by someone in the room or the social anxiety that presents in a meeting  situation when the focus is directly on you.

Questions you might ask yourself in thinking about the cause:

Is it because I am scared my Manager thinks I am not good enough?  Because of an opinion you might share at a meeting? Really? If they are the type of Manager that holds weekly team meetings, chances are they are very open to hearing yours and your colleagues opinions. Trust your manager.  It is their job to support you. If they don’t and undermine you or make you feel bad for your contribution, they need to improve their leadership skills.  Perhaps it’s better to speak to your Manager at a separate time and tell them you feel you don’t have much to contribute and how can they help you improve in this area.   Acknowledge it isn’t your greatest strength and ask them to help you overcome this. Maybe they can direct questions to you that you are comfortable with or maybe you can agree on thoughts for the meeting beforehand.  Whatever it is, if you have a good manager, make a plan with them.

Will my colleagues think I am saying something silly?  Your colleagues won’t be that focused on what you actually say as most of the time they will be thinking about what they can say themselves.  One comment, it’s done. People move on. The only person you are holding back by being scared to speak up is yourself.  How do you know you are on the right track if you don’t share? Find a trusted colleague and ask them to back you no matter you say in the next meeting. Honestly, as soon as that person in the meeting says something like “I think you are onto something there” or “I agree”, most people round the table will fall into the acceptance zone.

Is it because I hate the focus being on me and if I speak, everyone will look at me? This is something I have struggled with in the past.  I just don’t like being the centre of attention for anything.  I had those same feelings on my wedding day.  I do know however, that when I have been in the leadership role and managing people – I haven’t had this issue at all so that perhaps says something about my trigger point. There is something about the expectation of leader that makes me shift my focus from “me to them”.  I guess after all, a leader knows they are working for the team.  But I know I believe everything I have said above and if I had thought about this sooner, I would have saved myself many anxious moments in the workplace and dealt with my feelings.

Also, how do your colleagues react to other’s voices in the room? Are they usually respectful or do they try to undermine others?  If it’s the latter, then your Manager needs to be able to rectify this as you won’t feel any more comfortable speaking up in this type of situation.

I am getting the opportunity to speak?  20 people in a room means less time and opportunity to speak up.  Perhaps you feel like you don’t share your thoughts quick enough and other people are already saying what you want to.  A lot of people say they can’t speak up, but the issue is in fact they are unable or unwilling to speak up.

I used to work with an incredibly clever colleague and often I felt I had nothing to say because of her.  That is because I genuinely thought she said what I was thinking most of the time – she confidently shared her thoughts on everything and her thinking process was so quick that she made her contribution instantly, whereas I usually needed a minute or so to think about my response. There are things I could have done: in this instance, the Chair of the meeting was our Manager.  I could have shared my thoughts with my Manager and asked them to consider a different approach to the meeting to allow others to speak.  In hindsight though when I thought about it, it wasn’t an issue to everyone – it was me.  What could I add to her comment? Was there a different approach? Could I have told her how I felt? Those were the things I should have considered at the time.  I didn’t though and I can tell you because of that, nothing changed.

What could things look like? Wouldn’t your job feel better if you could sort this bit? Visualise how this would look – participating in meetings, making suggestions to colleagues, offering your opinion on things, people listening to your constructive contribution, feeling very much part of the group (and maybe even leading it).  Doesn’t that look better?

The bottom line: Whatever the reason, avoidance is not a good tactic.  Although it can sometimes feel like the easier option, it won’t change a thing.  If you are anxious, seek help. Would you persevere with a broken leg? No. So deal with it.  If it is only certain situations like the one we have considered above, the bottom line is this example: you will only recover by speaking up.  Build relationships to feel less anxious or uncomfortable, speak to your Manager, accept that you can’t be perfect at everything.  This is your area for development – so what?

Everyone has development needs – this is yours.

Look out for future articles on this topic.



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