should I speak up more in meetings?

A reader writes:

I am not sure if this is a real problem or something trivial that I perceive as a problem. So far it hasn’t yet resulted in any repercussions but it always has me worried and paranoid.

The situation: I am more of a soft-spoken, mild-mannered type who considers himself a good listener. The problem is that I don’t really speak up in meetings. I mostly listen and take notes and try to understand what is going on and being said. I am not sure if this is harming me in the long run in terms of how my colleagues and those in the upper ranks perceive me, whether they see my being quiet as a problem or if this tendency indicates a negative mark in my character.

So far no one has said anything but I can’t help but feel self-conscious when everyone seems to be piping up with opinions and ideas and I remain silent in meetings trying to understand it all and take it all in. When I have an opinion or an idea, I do pipe in but most of the time I find myself on the listening end rather than the talking end.

I know that being more outgoing can be a big plus in the work world where social skills matter as much as your actual professional skills. I was wondering what advice you can give for me to gauge whether or not my being reserved is a potential problem or not.

Some of your colleagues are probably grateful to you for speaking up only when you have something worth saying and not being one of those people who has input on everything. That said, it’s a good thing to be thinking about. I have two pieces of advice:

First, I think you’re right to recognize the value in participating. Even if you don’t have a new idea to offer, there are other ways to add to the conversation. For instance, if someone says something that you don’t find clear, ask them to expand on what they mean. Or if someone offers an idea that you think is a good one, say so. That sort of contribution can make you a valued part of a conversation. After all, participation isn’t just about offering new ideas — it’s also about helping to refine or clarify others’ ideas and being someone who makes people feel their input is useful and valuable. (Sometimes I think people don’t do the latter because they think they’re too junior for a more senior person to care about their praise — but it’s actually not true. Everyone loves to hear, “That’s a great point.”)

Second, rather than continuing to wonder, you could ask your boss directly for feedback on this. It’s okay to be direct and say something similar to what you wrote above. For instance, you could say, “I’ve been thinking lately about how I come across in meetings because I realize I don’t speak up as much as others. I listen actively and I do speak up when I have contributions to make, but I wonder if you’d prefer for me to be more involved.” It might lead to a good conversation about other strengths your boss values in you, or ways he/she would like to see you develop.

{ 4 comments… read them below }

  1. RJ

    Another option: Join Toastmasters – it’s a great way of improving your communication and leadership skills.

  2. luisa

    thank god for good listeners like you.

    if I have to sit through one more two-hour staff meeting where the same 3 people expound and rabbit-trail off miniscule agenda items, i will fall asleep in my coffee.

  3. Rook

    You might want to read up on Myers-Briggs descriptions of introverts vs. extroverts. I’m also an introvert – I don’t process information through speaking out loud, and I don’t brainstorm well in group settings. I like to internalize information, go back to my desk, analyze, then determine how I feel, what questions I have, etc. You’re right to want to stretch your skills, because rightly or wrongly the attributes often displayed by those who are more MB “extroverts” are highly praised in the workplace. You can figure out some good workarounds. For example, if you are highly analytical like I am, you can strategize a well-placed comment. Plan ahead if you need to (and if the meeting topic allows). If you say only one thing in a meeting but it’s one GOOD thing, you’re generally golden.

    1. Liz in a Library

      There’s a great new book that talks a lot about how introverts are often seen as lesser in society (and shouldn’t be): Quiet by Susan Cain. I highly recommend it.

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