In my leadership development work, I have the privilege of working with high-potential rising stars within firms. In the past few years, we’ve noticed that an increasing number of those participating in our programs come to us with a reticence to speak up. And I don’t mean speak their mind. I mean simply talking more in internal and client meetings and contributing ideas and insights.

More and more in-firm coaches and partners are asking for our assistance in helping their people see the importance of communicating and participating more. They understand a simple truth and that is that people follow leaders who communicate their vision, plan and ideals – on big strategic things and little things, too – and they aren’t comfortable following someone who isn’t able or willing to do so.

We have done a lot of study in the area of personality and I realize that communication preferences are definitely predisposed to the personality you were born with. If you are more introverted, you tend to listen intently, communicate more thoughtfully, speak more economically and you prefer to process and plan your communications. Contrast that with an extrovert, who prefers to talk things out and use language as a primary means of processing and relating. Neither of these preferences is “right” or “better.” However, the quieter introvert can often be misinterpreted as lacking confidence, being shy, not being engaged, or having nothing of value to add. These are not assessments that any of us wants applied to us, especially because they are rarely accurate!

I persistently coach those who prefer to remain quiet that they have to shift their behavior so that they can be perceived as a leader, their ideas can garner acceptance and their advice can drive change in others. I am not trying to turn a “man or woman of few words” into someone with an endless verbal stream, but I am committed that leaders with both introverted and extroverted styles be heard.

So, if you’ve been holding back, trying to get a word in edge wise, waiting until your idea is “good enough” or the opportunity “is just right,” or until you’re sure you know enough to share your thoughts in just the right way – STOP WAITING. Instead consider these ideas:

  • Figure out what’s holding you back. Ask yourself, “What am I afraid will happen if I speak up and say something?” Most often, when I ask my quiet coachees what they’re afraid of happening, they’ll say:
      • I don’t want to say something stupid
      • I don’t want to say something others will disagree with
      • I don’t want to say something that doesn’t add value
      • I don’t want to talk to hear my own voice and waste others’ time with my words the way the more dominating speakers in the room sometimes do (based on their own assessment) On this one – you’re probably far away from this being a possibility!
      • I’m afraid I’ll be asked follow up questions and not know the answers
      • I’m afraid I won’t be able to think on my feet
      • I don’t want to prolong an already draining meeting, so my silence helps bring the meeting end time closer sooner.

    When you read these thoughts, they don’t sound very leaderly, do they? Your inner voice, or internal conversation may be saying these things to you– but these are simply negative and un-empowering thoughts that you’re allowing to hold you back. As you grow in your role at the firm, people expect you to share, facilitate, and participate more and your lack of participation could be making you stick out more than you would if you participate and it isn’t exactly “right” or “perfect.”

  • Set a goal. For my more profound introverts, I ask them to set a goal to speak up at least once in every meeting, even if it is to pay a compliment to someone on a good idea or state agreement with something someone else said. Practice speaking up, so you can get over your fear of doing so. When you get in the habit of doing so every meeting, it will become more natural and less foreign for you and for others.
  • Start with questions. If you are afraid to share an idea or assert an opinion in a larger group meeting, or a “higher level” meeting, start by asking questions. There is less risk in asking a question to deepen your understanding of a subject or clarify something being discussed than in expressing an opinion or taking a specific position. Look for opportunities to further a dialogue by asking questions.
  • Suggest a different style of facilitation. If you find it difficult to speak up because there are dominating voices in your meetings, see the facilitator or leader of those meetings and ask them to consider changing up facilitation. Express your interest in participating more but the challenge you’re finding. Ask that they implement some new facilitation techniques so that everyone is heard. They can start the sharing in a meeting by having the typically quieter meeting participants speak first or by going around the table on certain topics to “force” you (and other more quiet participants) to speak when it’s your turn. These techniques should always be used in larger group facilitations to ensure that everyone weighs in or contributes.
  • Get comfortable not having all of the answers. If your fear is that you won’t be prepared enough to speak up and take the floor, prepare well, but know that you can’t prepare for everything. It is okay to say, “I don’t know, but I’ll look into it,” or to deflect a question you aren’t sure of to the group by saying, “what do you all think?” to see if anyone else is able to jump in and resolve it. People respect honesty and no one believes anyone pretending to have all of the answers.
  • Consider Toastmasters. If you don’t enjoy speaking up, you may feel like this idea is “off the ranch,” but sometimes the best way to take medicine it to gulp it down in one big swallow. Join a Toastmasters group and practice the art of speech making, toasts and other forms of communication. Doing so will help you master your negative internal thoughts, your nervous body reactions (like an elevated heart rate) and will teach you to plan and execute simple and more complex communications. Attend a few different groups in your area to find one that feels like a comfortable place – and know that you’ll find people who came to the same place to work on the same things as you are and you might just find the best kind of support you could ask for.

Our business world is set up for those who speak up – with meetings, presentations, brainstorming sessions, conference calls, and more. Your ability to relate your ideas in a group setting is crucial to those ideas making the difference that’s possible. Quit listening to your negative internal conversation and lead by engaging more in the “real one” going on around you!