Has this happened to you? You study the agenda. You pour over the meeting materials in advance so you can ask thoughtful questions. But once at the meeting you sit quiet as a church mouse. You might even disagree with a comment or decision that has been made but you say nothing. You leave the meeting frustrated and angry and berate yourself for letting your anxiety get the best of you once again.
One of the concepts I really like in Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In is taking one’s seat at the table. She means it both literally and metaphorically. She points out how frequently women marginalize themselves (and hence their voices) in meetings, taking their seat along the wall becoming invisible, their voices never heard.
It’s not that I didn’t have anything to say but I was so self-conscious about looking or sounding dumb that I would clam up. A turning point early in my career changed this for me.
When I was an account manager working for a large New York PR firm, the account team had just finished up a client meeting. The Managing Director asked us to stay behind to debrief.
I’ll never forget what he said next.
“None of you had a single f **ing thing to say during this entire meeting. If you are just going to sit there like damn idiots why the hell are you here?” He looked us each in the eye and said, “Don’t ever show up again to another meeting with nothing to say. Our clients pay us for our expert opinion. If you sit there silently, you are wasting their money and your time.”
Do I have to tell you that it was mostly a group of young women who were getting this lecture?
I never forgot this lesson. And know from coaching many professional women that anxiety in meetings is common.
Here’s the thing. When you sit in silently in a meeting, you deprive your organization and your colleagues of your knowledge. When you sit silently, you lose the opportunity to make your organization better.
Worse, when you make it a habit of not speaking up in meetings, you leave your colleagues with the impression that you have nothing to contribute.
And nothing could be further from the truth, right?
Show up and be truly present.
I don’t know how many times I’ve watched other women in meetings find the least conspicuous spot in the room to sit and then spend the entire meeting with their heads down taking notes. Unless you are an executive assistant tasked with taking meeting minutes, look up, engage and show your interest in the topic. Take as few notes as possible (better yet ask someone else for their notes!) and participate.
Plan in advance the questions you’d like to ask.
If you are someone who finds it hard to ask spontaneous questions, think of a few questions or comments in advance of the meeting. Write them down and then ask them at the right opportunity. Your good questions or insights may help advance the group’s thinking in new ways so don’t be shy.
Make it a habit to make at least one comment per meeting.
Cat got your tongue even when you are knowledgeable about the meeting topic? Try to make at least one comment every meeting. Like any new habit, it takes practice and the more you get used to voicing your opinion out loud in meetings, the more comfortable you will become.
Have faith in your own competence.
This is a big one. How many times have you listened to the guy (or gal) sitting next you yammer on and on even though it’s clear he’s bullshitting? You may worry about looking or sounding dumb, but remind yourself that you’ve earned the right to be at the table. Remember that you know as much (if not more) as your colleagues. And think of it this way, most people are so concerned with how they are being perceived in a meeting, that chances are they are too focused on themselves to be critical of you.
Find “low risk” opportunities outside of work to practice speaking up.
I recently met Eleanor, an all around fabulous working mom and an accomplished engineer. She told me that she was naturally very shy and introverted and hated talking in meetings. To get over her fear of speaking she started volunteering with a local professional women’s group in her city.
She signed up to lead a number of events where she would have to speak in front of large groups. She admitted that while she still “feels like throwing up” (her words!) before she speaks, she’s thrilled that she has finally conquered something she knows was holding her back professionally. I love this strategy of finding supportive and low risk settings to practice new skills.
Next time you are at a meeting monitor yourself. Did you squish into a corner attempting to be invisible or did you confidently grab a spot at the table? Were you engaged? Did you ask questions and build on other’s comments?
Remember you’ve earned it so let everyone see how much you have to contribute. Your thoughts. Do you suffer from meeting anxiety? How you handle it?