I don’t want to do Toastmasters with my boss!

A reader writes:

My boss would like me to work on speaking up more in meetings. I am by nature shy, and this is something I have always struggled with. I have a particularly hard time speaking up around authority figures. However, I am actively working on improving in this area and I’ve joined our company’s Toastmasters club. Almost immediately, my boss decided to join also because he said he wants to work on his public speaking skills also. He asked me if I would mind, and I said “No” because Toastmasters is supposed to be a really supportive environment, and I thought it would be okay.

Well, it’s been a few months, and I dread going to the club meetings because it is so anxiety-provoking. My boss is a very outgoing person who doesn’t have a lot of problems with public speaking. And although he is not a terrible boss, he can be very judgmental about employees’ abilities, and I am afraid of making mistakes around him. Consequently, Toastmasters meetings have become more like work meetings than a place where I can safely practice public speaking. I am extremely nervous before the meetings, and I don’t think I am getting much out of them.

I’d like to quit the club and find another place to practice my public speaking that does not feel so threatening, but I don’t want my boss to think I am flaky. Do you have any advice on how to handle this? If I switch, I think he may wonder why I am doing this.

I answer this question — and four others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • How to reject an internal candidate
  • Being asked to fill out a reference questionnaire instead of giving a reference over the phone
  • How do I know if I did well in an interview?
  • Approaching my boss about a weekly therapy appointment

{ 53 comments… read them below }

    1. Samata*

      This was going to be my exact advice! We have several in our area and people visit other clubs at times or even switch all together at times.

    2. EddieSherbert*

      +1 if possible! I think the number of groups/membership totally depends on your area.
      There are several Toastmasters groups in my area at least, so this was an option. I did not join the “Workplace one” (exclusively for people who work at my Workplace) because I was worried about this exact thing. I was able to join one a “City one” instead.

    3. periwinkle*

      I’m looking for a local Toastmasters group even though the company has several. I don’t want to practice in front of co-workers, let alone anyone in my management chain! After I get some experience and gain confidence in public speaking, I might switch to a corporate group for convenience.

      But sometimes you need to tour the smaller towns before you’re polished and ready to perform on Broadway.

  1. Falling Diphthong*

    #4 One of my favorite open thread topics here was times your gut was wrong. And for some people it was interviews–they would think they nailed it only to never hear from the company again, but the same person could be convinced an interview had been a marshmallow-covered disaster and be offered the job.

    1. Alton*

      That happened to me. I didn’t think the interview was a disaster, but I didn’t feel like it went great and I thought I probably bombed the sample tasks they gave me. But I figured it was worthwhile to get the interview practice. I was really surprised when I got the job.

      I’d had other interviews where I felt confident but got rejected.

    2. Competent Commenter*

      My coworker recently thought she’d bombed an interview but was offered a different, slightly higher profile job instead, so she couldn’t have done too badly!

    3. Brett*

      I think both cases have little to do about your gut reaction though, because it depends so much on the other candidates.
      You could absolutely nail an interview in every way, but a better candidate shows up and accepts the offer and you never hear anything.
      You could have a disaster interview, but still be by far the best candidate in terms of skills and experience and still get the offer.
      Your gut was not wrong, it is just that the outcomes do not necessarily reflect your interview performance.

  2. LaurenB*

    I would switch to a different Toastmaster’s group if possible and blame scheduling. I tried to take a language class that both my grandboss and another member of senior management were in, because it was the only class in town. And the teacher loved using lots of free association and acting out scenarios rather than, say, professional vocabulary building or grammar. I felt like I was in a therapy session with senior management! I quit and found a private teacher and just told them that I wanted more one-on-one teaching. I did make sure to find a teacher so that no one could accuse me of not being dedicated to improving, and it was about a million times less awkward.

    1. OhNo*

      That was exactly my thought. There are lots of possible reasons that would make for good excuses – different time, meeting place closer to home, focus on newer/shyer people, etc. – and I think you could drop one casually into a conversation with your boss.

      Just as an example: “Have fun at Toastmasters tonight, boss! I’m trying out a new group this week, so unfortunately I won’t see you there.”

      1. Parenthetically*

        Yes, exactly this script. Keep it light and breezy and act as if there isn’t an issue, and it (probably) won’t be an issue.

        Or even keep it until after you choose a different group and miss a meeting. Boss mentions you weren’t at the meeting, you look surprised he would even have noticed, and say, “Oh, I checked out a different group closer to home/at a better time/with a friend/just for fun last night! I really enjoyed it and I think I’m going to stick with it! Did you see *work related subject change*?”

  3. pomme de terre*

    OP #5, I had a recurring therapy appointment and used pretty much the same wording as Allison suggests. My plan for making it work was to stay an hour late on the day of my appointment. (My appointment was first thing in the morning, so I worked 10-6 instead of 9-5. You could do 8-4 or similar to balance things out.) It was fine.

    1. AnonyN00b*

      It’s unlikely that this would happen outside of my government job, but I had a poor experience with clearing a therapy appointment with my boss. I did what Alison described, explained it was a “medical appointment, this is how it would be accommodated in my schedule including x hrs of sick leave and x hrs of coming in early to make up time”, with minimal impact on my workload. But when my original estimate of 6-8 weeks came and went and we hit 3 months, my boss and HR requested paperwork that’s required to request an alternate schedule.

      I was using an hour of sick leave each week and making up two because of the one day I came in three hours late every week. That’s it.

      And, surprise! the paperwork turned out to be a nightmare and basically felt like my boss was trying to figure out WHY I was doing what I was doing. Well, considering my therapist was saying that my job was contributing to my depression and anxiety, you can imagine why this paperwork was making it worse.

      Story ends with my counselor and I actually deciding to stop sessions altogether to bypass the paperwork, and I haven’t gone back for regular appointments even though I could use them right about now… (I genuinely was doing much better at that point, it’s just that new life stuff came up).

      OP, I hope with all my might that your employer is normal and doesn’t require paperwork. If they do – you have my sympathy!

  4. Naptime Enthusiast*

    #5 if it becomes an issue of missing too much time from work, can you flex the time throughout the week, say put in an extra half hour Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to make up for it? Or finish anything up from home in the evening if you have remote access? Those may be workable solutions, as long as it does not detrimentally impact your health.

  5. Antilles*

    I don’t understand the intent behind a “reference questionnaire” in #3. It just seems to defeat the whole purpose of, well, checking references and would seem to make the reference much harder to parse and evaluate.
    1.) You lose all nuances of tone or hesitation. If you call me and I say “hm, well, I guess Jane’s work is decent enough, fairly good”, that awkwardness tells you something. But in writing, I’m going to filter all that out and you’ll just get “Yes, Jane’s work is fairly good”, which is actually a completely different message.
    2.) Many people would be much less likely to say something negative on paper than over the phone since it’s enshrined for all eternity.
    3.) If you’re using a questionnaire, I’m guessing it’s mostly (all?) some kind of standard boilerplate, so if the candidate said something particularly notable for good or ill during the interview, you might not get a decent follow up or information.
    4.) If your questions aren’t laser-focused, you might not actually get relevant answers, because “How are the candidate’s technical skills?” can be taken in a bunch of different ways – I might respond with a detailed description of her work on Chocolate Teapot Design when really your company’s focus is more on Vanilla Coffeepots.
    5.) While you could probably suss out more information for any of the above issues with a follow-up phone call…well, that defeats the whole purpose of the questionnaire, so I’m assuming you don’t.
    Any commenters out there whose companies actually use this sort of questionnaire? If so, how’s it working for you? Does your company actually follow up with a phone call?

    1. Ramona Flowers*

      Funnily enough it’s far more common to do it this way in the UK. Partly so you can keep them on file I guess? I had never heard of reference calls until I found AAM and I still haven’t fully got my head around the idea.

    2. Ramona Flowers*

      And no, I’ve never known anyone to follow up with a phone call. It would be really weird and pushy and not the done thing at all in the sectors I’ve worked in.

      But over here (again at least in the sectors I’ve worked in) nobody ever checks references before making an offer. They’re a formality once you’ve made one and it’s been accepted.

      1. Bagpuss*

        I think that is very variable. We *always* check references.
        I’m not involved in the process but I think whether we do it by hone or in writing depends on how the contact details are provided.

    3. Muriel Heslop*

      I’ve had to do these several times – it seems to be increasingly common in education. I’ve had two follow-up with a phone call and they were both instances in which I did not recommend the candidate be hired to teach and I was fairly frank about it. My current district also uses this format. I’m not a huge fan but I’m glad there is a small space at the end for comments.

    4. Parenthetically*

      As my school’s ad hoc senior guidance counselor, I’ve had to do some of these sorts of scale-of-one-to-five references for students (applying for internships, colleges, fancy extracurriculars) and they infuriate me. I can write a mean reference letter and am happy to answer follow-up calls; let me!

    5. Falling Diphthong*

      I remember back in the 90s someone explaining that in medical references the only thing that mattered in a written reference letter was the phone number at the bottom of the page. It was just assumed that no one wanted to get dragged into “You said I wasn’t organized!!! Right here in writing!! I can sue for defamation!” and so the written record would be bland boilerplate.

      Giving a reference is the opposite of anonymous–you know you are on the record and your views are attached to your name. I would be much more limited in a written reference, just like I would be for any work communication that could be forwarded elsewhere–there are a very narrow range of people and topics who would get a blunt sideline written exchange of, “You’re right, Contact A doesn’t seem to know what they are doing, but in my experience they will probably lose interest in reviewing your work after a few pages, so you can just plow forward…”

    6. Brett*

      In cases where you require or would desire to have a clean and traceable paper trail on a hiring decision, a questionnaire can be better than the alternative of recording the reference interview.

    7. GriefBacon*

      I’ve worked in staffing for a large-ish company where I was the only person responsible for checking references/employment verifications for 200+ applications a week. We got whatever kind of reference we could, and there certainly is something to be said for being able to make note of tone or hesitation or whatever…but at such a high volume, it was a lot easier to do digital versions. Generally, for entry-level stuff, we mostly just needed to know that they weren’t terrible and they were eligible for rehire — anything beyond that was nice to know, but that was about all we really needed to make decisions. And having the paper trail was really helpful, since a lot of our hiring decisions got challenged (either by applicants, or by management post-hire).

    8. DumbQuestion*

      I don’t know what process that company is using, but ours is sent out in a link. You can click the accept button or decline button. If you accept there is a box for anything else you’d like to add after the standard questions. We don’t follow up with calls unless something is really off. It’s far better than playing phone tag.

    9. Jessen*

      When I was in academia, one reason people were pushing for questionnaires was that they’re supposed to reduce unconscious bias. Something they found was that reference writers were unintentionally writing weaker letters for women, even when they thought the woman was stronger. But they tended to over-emphasize “soft” skills for women, compared to emphasizing “hard” skills for men. So a man and a woman might be equally good at, say, technical writing, but the man would end up with a reference that talked mostly about how strong his technical abilities were, while the woman got a reference that talked about how nice she was to people coming in, and how she was always cheerful, and then a bit about her technical abilities.

      The idea was that by asking people to actually rate the candidates on specific things, they could get around the implicit bias of how different skills are valued differently for men versus women.

  6. TootsNYC*

    I’ve filled out several of those questionnaires, and I find they aren’t really any more of a time suck than a phone conversation.

    They’re not as fun, and they’re a different kind of thinking, but they don’t take as much time as you might fear.

  7. voposama*

    For #5, I used basically the same wording when telling my boss about my weekly physical therapy appointments (I ran into very similar scheduling constraints). So you don’t worry about people reading into it too much or anything! This is very normal!

    1. Tina Belcher*

      This is what I was going to suggest if she felt pressured into giving a reason. Physical therapy has less of a stigma than mental health therapy.

  8. Jill*

    On #2, the main thing is to actually tell the candidate that they didn’t get the job before the new person start. I actually found out I didn’t get an internal position by being introduced to the person they hired.

  9. Argh!*

    Re: LW #1


    This sounds like it’s bigger than your relationship with your boss or with Toastmasters. Your problem started before that, and if it’s not getting better with exposure, then it may be more than just being “shy.”

    Or… LW1 is in the wrong job.

    1. Parenthetically*

      “Pills”?! Charming.

      Maybe review the commenting rules again?

      • Don’t armchair-diagnose others (“it sounds like your coworker is autistic/has borderline personality disorder/etc.”). We can’t diagnose based on anecdotes on the internet, these statements often stigmatize people with those diagnoses, and it’s generally not useful to focus on disorders rather than practical advice for dealing with the person in question.

      1. LouiseM*

        What? I think Argh’s comment was needlessly rude, but “pill” is not a medical diagnosis. Neither is having a bad attitude.

        1. Parenthetically*

          Interesting — it read pretty clearly to me as a backhanded diagnosis of anxiety: take pills for your problem, which is not shyness, which is therefore anxiety.

          Regardless, I agree it was needlessly rude.

          1. IForgetWhatNameIUsedBefore*

            That’s exactly how I read it as well. Very rude, even IF OP does have anxiety. They might already know, and be getting treatment, or not want to take “pills” or whatever, but it’s nobody else’s damn business.
            OP is taking proactive steps to overcome stage fright/fear of public speaking, I don’t think anyone else needs to conjecture on what the “real” cause is.

    2. LaurenB*

      I’m a big believer in the power of beta blockers for public speaking anxiety, but I think the letter writer should try a more supportive setting where she feels she can actually learn by failing before concluding that her problem is so serious that she needs to quit her job.

    3. ZVA*

      This doesn’t sit well with me… OP clearly knows this is bigger then her relationship with her boss (“I am by nature shy, and this is something I have always struggled with”), and she didn’t say it wasn’t getting better with exposure — just that being in a group with her boss is like jumping in at the deep end, and she wants to start out in a setting that feels safer. Also… if you’re socially anxious/shy it can take a looong time, much longer than a few months, to get comfortable with things like public speaking, making sales calls, etc. (ask me how I know). I’ve been working on my shyness for years and, though it’s improving, I probably will be for the rest of my life. And I wouldn’t take it well if someone said “pills” when I told them that.

      1. IForgetWhatNameIUsedBefore*

        I am shy/introverted and also have an anxiety disorder. They are not actually the same things, even if they overlap in some areas.
        Overcoming shyness didn’t fix my anxiety, and fixing my anxiety did not overcome my shyness.
        “Pills” poster is way off base.

    4. Starbuck*

      Huh? The LW doesn’t give any indication that public speaking is a critical job function for them… just that their boss wants them to talk more in meetings. That may or may not be significant for the work they do, we don’t know. It doesn’t seem helpful to suggest “pills” either.

    5. Kate*

      This all seems really premature based on the info the OP has given us. It’s really normal to be uncomfortable public speaking. It’s been estimated that something like 75% of people suffer to some extent, and I think being young and less experienced can exacerbate this (I don’t know if this is the case for the OP). Nothing about this screams medication to me, and there is nothing in the letter that says this is essential to her job either. I struggled with public speaking for years because I am also a “shy by nature” person, and frankly, I even found Toastmasters to be too intimidating for me. But over the years, I’ve become a lot more comfortable with it just by preparing well and practicing. A lot of the comfort comes just by gaining experience, which is the aim of Toastmasters. OP is doing the right thing to improve a skill she knows she is weak in. Suggesting she needs meds or a new job is a pretty extreme reaction.

      1. Alton*

        Agreed. And even if the LW has anxiety that may respond well to professional treatment, that doesn’t mean that taking medication will necessarily be an easy and sufficient solution. It’s a good thing that the OP is practicing.

    6. MLB*

      Wow seriously?!? Guess what? Some people just hate public speaking and it’s not an anxiety problem. I’m ok in smaller meetings, but when I’ve had to stand up in front of a large group and present, I’m a nervous mess. I don’t like being the center of attention, but I have zero anxiety in general. It’s actually a pretty big fear for a lot of people and suggesting that she needs pills was unnecessary and rude.

  10. Trout 'Waver*

    OP#5, I know from personal experience that depression and anxiety can make it difficult to ask for help or accommodations. All reasonable people and even most unreasonable ones would want to help and accommodate you, even if you don’t disclose the reason for the medical appointments. Especially if it’s the same hour every week. You’re not making a particularly big ask, imho.

    1. Samata*

      Yes, even for those of us without anxiety I think this can sometimes be more stressful than needed – especially for a set appointment. I used to stress over these type of asks all the time – and then realized that as long as it’s not just willy-nilly and you have a plan and especially a set time/schedule (every Wed.) most bosses are understanding when it comes to things like this.

  11. kc89*

    I once applied for a job that wanted a minimum of five and up to TWENTY of those professional reference surveys

    I had ten of my contacts do it for me, I really needed a job so I was willing to use up some goodwill but I don’t think I would do it again.

  12. the spam queen*

    OP #5 – Whatever you do, make sure to advise your supervisor prior to the day of (unless it’s an emergency, of course). I supervise an employee who makes monthly drs appointments, but seems to forget to loop me in until right before they leave two hours early, even though they have arrived early to “make up” the time. It’s not the appointments that get me, it’s the lack of pre-planning and communication.

    1. Jennifer Thneed*

      What can you do to break this cycle? Is the appointment always in the 3rd week of the month, for example? You could put something into *your* calendar to remind you to f/u with that employee.

      I’d say that when something is a problem for the 2nd time, it’s good to notice the potential trend and prevent it from being a problem the 3rd time.

  13. Kat Em*

    My husband had a Toastmasters club at his company, but joined a community-based club instead (and eventually, an advanced club too) for this same reason. Plus, it’s nice to be able to meet people outside of work!

    On the downside, your employer might not be willing to pay dues for an outside club. But compared with most classes or groups, Toastmasters fees are incredibly affordable.

  14. Snow Day Lady*

    Op#5: I was in the exact same situation in my last job. I made sure to schedule my appointments two months in advance for the same day and time every week. Then, I told my boss that I had an appointment at 4:30pm every Thursday and so I had to leave the office at 4:00 on that day every week. I would come in an hour earlier on Thursdays to make up the time. For the first few weeks I had to remind my boss on Wednesday about the appointment, but once he learned my schedule it was never brought up again.

    Your boss probably wont even care what it is for, but if you need an excuse just say physical therapy. A coworker of mine had regular PT appointments during the day for a chronic knee injury, so its definitely plausible.

  15. Say what, now?*

    To the therapy appointment seeker, I have an employee under me that has weekly physical therapy appointments. Every week she leaves between an hour and an hour and a half early for these appointments. When we interviewed her for the position I initially worried about two things: 1) that it would impact work beyond what we could pick up the slack on and 2) that her coworkers would resent her for leaving early every week.

    I decided it was worth rolling the dice and I’m glad because as it turns out, neither of these issue are really issues. We have deadlines throughout the day being a remittance site. She works hard to make sure that the rest of the team isn’t left with a bunch of work for the last deadline looming over their heads (not that she finishes everything for them but that she leaves them with just a reasonable amount to pick up). As for the other worry, she told them about the PT and why it was necessary (she was in a car accident a few years back that left her with severe back problems) and the rest of the group both accepted her explanation and takes her limitations into account on other things, like offering to take her garbage out so she doesn’t have to carry it to the back of the building. People can surprise you with their compassion. Although depression can be more personal than a back injury so whether or not you tell your coworkers may be a different story. But it can work with very little effort.

  16. JMa*

    I recently had an annoying experience with those surveys. After my phone interview but a week before my in-person interview I was contacted by the hiring manager and told to expect a link to the reference survey for me to send out. They were in a hurry to fill the position and figured this would save them time. My first response was to refuse as I don’t want to tap my references unnecessarily unless I’m one of the top 1-2 candidates. However, I didn’t want to appear uncooperative if it might effect my chances so complied. Now that I didn’t receive an offer I’m not happy that I bothered my references for nothing. Also, if memory serves, there was no “I’d rather speak to someone” option for my references. I think they’d have had to contact me who, in turn, would have had to email the hiring manager. Was it reasonable for them to check references before they even met me? Never again will I do this before an interview. It was my understanding that they interviewed at least 5-6 people so while it might have been easier for them, I think it was pretty inconsiderate to the applicants.

  17. PersephoneUnderground*

    OP #5, I wanted to add something to Alison’s good advice:
    They shouldn’t ask what it’s for, but in case they forget and ask or you get questions when leaving early from coworkers, I’d assume they are just concerned (and if there’s some other reason it’s still best to handle it as if it’s coming from concern- very Miss Manners). The go-to answer for follow-up questions I’d suggest is “nothing serious/life-threatening, don’t worry, but it is important to my health”. You’re reassuring them you aren’t, say, going to chemo once a week for terminal cancer, while still not giving any detail that they don’t need and you don’t need to share. Good on you for taking care of your health, mental and physical!

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