Speak Up!

by : Rhoberta Shaler, PhD

Ever been in a meeting with something important to say and remained silent? You may have felt the flush of the good idea and the rising adrenalin. You may have moved to the front of your seat and readied your body to speak...and then didn't. What stopped you?

Certainly there is wisdom in knowing when to speak and when not to. Knowing the politics of a situation or the time constraints, you may choose not to speak. Often, though, you may have a unique view, perspective, issue or concern that needs to be raised. That contribution would add a new dimension to the discussion or change the decision about to be made.

You may feel strongly about a new policy and your silence allows folks to think you agree. Is that the message you wish to send?

Recently I was involved in the creation of a new management team for a department of a public sector organization. This brought together four people who previously had felt that they were in a 'pecking order' and changed them into a cohesive decision-making team. Two of the four have strong opinions and are very comfortable expressing them. Two are very quiet. In forming the team, we discussed this dynamic. How are we each going to best contribute to the team? We talked about the possibility that the talkative two could overpower the silent two. In fact, they might even do the talking for them! Focusing on the fact that each person was hired because he or she is an expert in a distinct field, it was soon decided that each person's opinion was vital to good decision-making.

The two who are quiet are very competent as are the others. Increasing their level of comfort with adding their voices to the group was important. Two things were agreed upon: every person would speak on every issue and each person would take responsibility for doing so. One of the natural 'talkers' offered to ask the quiet two for their opinions. This seems like a good idea on the surface, however, as a rule, it is a poor idea.

Why is it a poor idea? Simple. If one person takes responsibility for the contributions of others there are two new kinds of control being encouraged. The 'talker' has control over when the others are asked for their opinions. The 'silent' could be waiting to be asked making their contribution the 'talkers' responsibility. Neither of these options are optimal.

The important piece is that each person understands that he or she was hired to contribute his or her expertise and experience to the team. It is the responsibility of the individual to contribute. For the talkers that is easy. In fact, it is enjoyable. For the quiet folks, two things seemed to be true. One of them only felt it necessary to contribute if she disagreed with the direction of the conversation. The other is very shy. What to do?

With some individual coaching for each team member, each began to monitor involvement in the meetings. For those for whom it was difficult, they undertook to at least say when they agreed or disagreed. For those for whom it was easy, they undertook to leave some airtime free. Often, it is a challenge to find a quiet moment to summon up the gumption to speak!

When you have something you feel is important to contribute to a meeting, formulate your thoughts, take a deep breath and jump in. Nothing life-threatening will happen. It's a little like learning to swim. The first few times you may get a mouthful of water and sputter a little. You may find yourself gasping for air. You may flail around a little, but, with practice, things even out and you make progress. Yes, it may feel awkward. Yes, you may discount the importance of what you have to say before you say it. But, jump in. You are there to offer your skills and learning. It is your responsibility.

A tip or two about handling those who only value the sound of their own voices may be in order. They have to take a breath sometime. Be ready to step in and take that opportunity.

AGREE WITH THEM. Beginning with 'I agree with _________ part of your opinion..." and go on to offer your thoughts. Being agreed with, even in part, will encourage them to listen to you.

USE POSITIVE LANGUAGE. Tell folks what you think would be best and why rather than telling them what is wrong with their ideas. Again, you may capture their attention.

HAVE CONFIDENCE IN YOUR IDEAS. Work within yourself to clarify your thoughts prior to the meeting. You may even make some notes. Being prepared will make it more likely that you will have some energy behind your points of view and, therefore, be more likely to express them.

BE BRIEF AND SPECIFIC. This is a great tip for everyone at the meeting. Stay on the topic and the point. Give your thoughts and reasons in short sentences, then stop and let others respond. This is the way business gets done! Who wants interminable meetings?

Speak up! You have the right and responsibility to do so.