I’m required to speak in meetings and I don’t know what to say

A reader writes:

My new manager expects for me to ask a question at every group meeting and to contribute something. I don’t always have a question about the material covered, nor do I always have something meaningful to add. If I don’t, I will be looked at poorly. I don’t know why this scares me so much but I can’t come up with stuff on the fly. I need time to process things. And I don’t always have a brilliant idea or thought.

The directive is to ask a question at every meeting and contribute something meaningful or else you have no place there. Any advice?

With some meetings, the idea that you must contribute or you have no place there would be silly. Some meetings are just for information sharing, and not everyone will have something worthwhile to contribute. And god knows that anyone who’s sat through an overly long meeting shouldn’t want people speaking just for the sake of speaking.

In other meetings, though, there can be some truth to that idea, even though it sounds harsh: Some meetings really do exist in order to have meaningful discussion with everyone who’s there. And while your manager’s rule is overly rigid, it’s possible it’s a response to a lack of engagement/participation. (If so, there’s a deeper issue to address and I’m skeptical this will solve it, but who knows.)

Anyway, if you know the meeting topic in advance, the best thing you can do is to spend some time reflecting on it beforehand and prepare some thoughts and questions in advance since you find it tough to do that the fly. (Just make sure to prepare more than one question in case the thing you planned to ask about is covered.)

But if you don’t know much about the topic ahead of time, it might help to have couple of go-to’s always ready to use. For example:

* Build on something someone else said: “I liked Jane’s point about X — especially her insights into Y, because ___.”

* Clarify next steps: “To make sure I’m clear on next steps for X, am I right in thinking we’ll do Y and Z to move this forward?”

* Ask about timelines or priorities: “Is there a timeline when you expect X done by?” or “How should we be prioritizing this relative to Z?”

* Seek insights from history: “Is there anything we learned when we did X last summer that we should incorporate this time?”

Also, as people are talking, take notes about anything that feels particularly important to you, or anything that seems unclear. Those can lend themselves to questions too, even if it’s just something like, “You had mentioned X and I wasn’t clear on the plan for how we’ll implement that — can you say more about what you’re thinking there?”

{ 206 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. HRIntrovert

    I sympathize as a born introvert! Don’t focus on being brilliant. Just focus on asking a question or two and commenting as something comes to you. Use a notepad to write your thoughts down so that you don’t necessarily forget an idea or comment you want to present. These are things that have helped me.

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    1. Bostonian

      Yup. I was the one that teachers tried to get to talk more in class because I often didn’t say anything unless I thought it was truly novel/interesting/important. It was a hard habit to break in the working world. You don’t have to have an amazing/brilliant thought every time you open your mouth! Sometimes even agreeing with someone else will have value (especially if you provide additional reasons or context). OP, release yourself from feeling like you have to make big “meaningful” contributions each time!

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    2. Reese

      Not sure what introversion has to do with it, though? One of my colleagues is a huge introvert and she’s also the chattiest and most insightful participant during meetings. She’s great at strategic thinking so that might part of why she’s such a good participant.

      I think useful participation in meetings is a skill that can be learned, like any other workplace skill. Allison has some great tips here.

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      1. CMart

        Agreed. I’m a huge extrovert but am also terrible at extemporaneous critical thinking. I just like to listen to people and take in what they’re saying – questions don’t come naturally to me without some extra thought put into making connections. Thank God this is a skill one can learn!

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      2. Kathleen_A

        Yes, “introvert” doesn’t mean “Does not want to speak in public.” I think what the OP and HRIntrovert are talking about is shyness – which isn’t the same thing as introversion because not all shy people are introverts and not all introverts are shy. (I, for example, am not shy at all, but I’m quite introverted.)

        But shy people can indeed learn to contribute to meetings. They may have to do more preparation because preparation will make most people feel more comfortable, but it can be done.

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        1. Reese

          Right, that makes more sense! I’m always a tad confused when people conflate introversion with shyness or social anxiety– not the same thing at all! Some of the friendliest and chattiest people I know are introverts. :)

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          1. Daisy

            I’m always confused by this new, complicated multi-layered meaning that people who are obsessed with business books and personality tests seem to have given the word. To me it means ‘a shy person’, that’s what the dictionary says. When people start saying things like ‘Some of the friendliest and chattiest people I know are introverts’ I question whether it actually means anything much anymore.

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            1. Kathleen_A

              You make a good point, but I do think there is value in differentiating between someone who needs a lot of solitude (which is, I think, the “personality test” meaning of introverted that you’re referring to) and someone who is nervous around people, at least people he or she doesn’t know well. Maybe there’s a better way than introverted vs. shy, and if so, I’d be glad to hear it because I am so far not aware of one.

              Very often a word’s meaning becomes less precise as the decades or centuries pass. But I think “introvert” is a somewhat unusual case in that the word’s definition seems to be gradually becoming more precise rather than less. I could be wrong, of course!

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            2. Reese

              I mean, I use what I think is the classic psych definition of “introvert = someone who needs alone time to recharge” and “extrovert = someone who recharges around people”. That’s why I said that someone of the chattiest people I know are introverts– they love people and they love socializing, they just get exhausted by it eventually. Heck, I count myself as one of those! I love networking, I love meeting new people, and I’m honestly sad when I start to feel drained by it all because I enjoy it. But that’s life.

              I agree that a lot of people on the internet use “introverted” when they mean “socially awkward/anxious”, which does a disservice to both types, if you ask me. They make introverts sound like ultra-special, bookish, fragile snowflakes who should never be asked to socialize because it’s so omg traumatic!! to have to say hi or make conversation! Frankly I resent that. You can be an introvert AND be shy and socially awkward, sure, but please don’t lump the two together. It’s insulting.

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              1. I Don’t Remember What Name I Used Before

                Agreed. I am an introvert AND shy AND socially awkward, and I consider them all to be different traits.

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            3. merpderp

              I think a lot of confusion around when to use “introvert” vs “shy” vs “socially anxious” is because, as an outside observer watching an introvert, a shy person, and a socially anxious person for a limited amount of time, there are many behaviors that looks the same – soft spoken, limited contributions to a conversation, avoids being the center of attention etc. The real difference comes down to internal motivation imho – an introvert may find those behaviors are optimal for keeping them interested and engaged wheras a shy person or socially anxious person may be using those behaviors as a coping mechanism. I also find as a non-shy introvert that there are a lot of value judgments wrt shyness that just don’t make a ton of sense to my introverted brain – so, for example a shy person may think “oh, I don’t want to speak up during this meeting because what if I say something wrong? Then I’ll look like an idiot and my boss won’t give me the raise I need and I won’t be able to make rent and I’ll have to move out and live in a van by the river.” or whatever. Whereas a introvert may think “oh, I don’t want to speak up during this meeting, I’m still trying to think about Ferdinand’s comment earlier about timing and how Susan’s point about the legislative cycle might change the timing, coming up with an inane “comment or question” is just going to confuse those points in my brain.” In other words, both may experience negative emotions in this situation but the reasoning is different.

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              1. Richard Hershberger

                Also, “shy” is an old, established non-technical word with a widely understood meaning. “Introvert” and “socially anxious” are often taken as being jargony ways of saying the same thing, when they really aren’t. The first time I saw a good explanation of what “introvert” means it was a light coming on. I am in the “introverted but not shy” category. Seeing the vocabulary to describe this helped me understand myself.

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            4. IndoorCat

              Yeah, it’s one of those words that, in fiction, a character described as introverted generally means the character is shy, thoughtful, and somewhat introspective. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary describes an introvert as someone “turning inward,” and Wikitionary defines introvert as, “one who is considered more thoughtful than social, with a personality more inwardly than outwardly directed.”

              So, characters described as introverted in fiction include Genly Ai from ‘Left Hand of Darkness,’ Amaranta in ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude,’ Vicki Austin from ‘A Ring of Endless Light.’ All are degrees of thoughtful, quiet, socially uncomfortable (specifically bad at speaking up on command and needing time to think; Amaranta especially values “speak[ing] only wisdom; otherwise, listen with your ears and not your tongue.”) These kinds of characters show up a lot in LeGuin’s work, actually. In her stories, introversion also incorporates moving at a slow pace, rather than rushing and making decisions quickly.

              In the psychology and business world, the word “introverted” means something very different than it does in literature and fiction. Rather than meaning “inward-turning,” it means “someone who needs solitude to recharge their energy.” An introverted person in this sense can be wise, but can also be shallow. They can make quick decisions and strike up conversations easily, so long as they’re sufficiently “charged.”

              By this definition, introverts may or may not have a vivid inner daydream life; their “recharge” time may not necessarily be spent in solitude meditating, daydreaming, or turning over observations and information in their mind. Instead, these introverts alone time can encompass taking in new information by watching tv, listening to podcasts or music, reading books or reports, etc.

              So, in practice, it’s a pretty different definition of the literary description of the word. I find it kinda frustrating myself. I see myself in the literary introverts, but don’t recognize this idea of needing time to recharge after spending time with people. People don’t make me anxious, so shy doesn’t quite fit, but neither does this “high energy / low energy” dynamic of the psych term of introversion / extroversion, where anyone can be high energy if they’ve gotten sufficient replenishment from the correct source.

              Like, I’m never going to be high energy, whether I’ve spent a lot of time alone lately or not. It’s just not happening.

              Reply
        2. SarahTheEntwife

          There are also people who need more processing time to be able to speak. I’m not particularly shy in work contexts, but I tend to need a bit more time than average to get my thoughts in order and can have trouble keeping up in a group conversation.

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      3. Emily K

        Yep, this is me!

        My introversion means I don’t place much value on small talk beyond the fact that I understand it’s expected of me and will make professional relationships warmer, even if what we’re actually saying is banal to the point of meaninglessness. It means it’s not uncommon for me to start talking about heavy topics like death and justice the first time I meet someone who’s also receptive to the conversation going that way.

        At work, it means that I like hearing the thought process behind something, and a well-placed inspirational story is very compelling. I tend to be more likely than extroverts to make an effort to read how people seem to be reacting to what’s going on, and then state my observations and ask if they’re correct and invite people to speak up.

        It means one of my most frequently used expressions at work is, “I’m willing to be convinced otherwise,” when I’ve made a decision but am aware that other people might have insights I haven’t considered, and I’d love to talk it through.

        It means I think often about interpersonal relationships – for instance, I make a point to ask experts for their opinion and give credit to people who have done hard work because I know genuine respect and recognition are the kind of thing that makes people work hard and like their jobs. Those aren’t facts I’ve learned and occasionally am reminded to pay attention to – they’re woven into my approach to working with others.

        Introversion is about liking to see the inside of people and things, understand on a deep level what makes them tick, and feel connected to them. That all takes a lot of energy, so introverts tend to get tired more easily in social situations because we’re working so hard. (It’s also why small talk is hard, since we feel like we’re expending a lot of energy for something with an often dubious ROI.)

        I think that’s why people mistake introversion for shyness and vice versa – there’s that overlapping area where sometimes we just don’t have the spoons to be sociable. The difference is shy people rarely feel like they have enough spoons, while introverts store up their spoons and sometimes spend them with gusto faster than they can replace them.

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    3. LaDeeDa

      Introvert and extrovert can also be applied differently than social situations and recovering from socializing. A person can be an extroverted thinker/communicator- meaning they speak to think and need a lot of external back and forth when processing/thinking. An introverted thinker/communicator thinks to speak- the do all their processing internally, and won’t speak until they have completed their processing.
      My husband is socially an introvert but a is an extroverted thinker/communicator and I am socially an extrovert but an introverted thinker/communicator- and I literally have to tell him to stop talking, because I can’t process until he stops. :)

      Reply
      1. Pommette!

        Thank you for sharing that. I tend to find the introvert/extrovert distinction painfully overused and too vague/all encompassing to be terribly meaningful… but these narrower and more specific distinctions seem like genuinely useful ways of thinking about how we work with others!

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      1. Hey Karma, Over here.

        I think most [insert gender/region/profession here] would agree/disagree.
        and let the derail begin.

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      2. Psh

        People are correcting you on a term you’re using incorrectly. Maybe you should accept you were wrong and learn from it instead of deflecting just because people didn’t fall over themselves agreeing with your (incorrect) ‘advice’.

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        1. IndoorCat

          Introvert: ” one who is considered more thoughtful than social, with a personality more inwardly than outwardly directed.”

          First definition.

          Just because a word has multiple definitions doesn’t mean that the word is being used incorrectly.

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    4. Not Rebee

      You’d be surprised what people who are not shy at all will just blurt out in public if given the opportunity. Most of my college experience was listening to the professor answer questions for people who clearly were not doing the reading or paying a ton of attention in class. And most of my secondary education (for a professional certification but in a classroom setting) involved “hypothetical” scenarios that were amazingly specific and totally derailed the class every single time. It doesn’t have to be brilliant, it just has to be something.

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  2. Chopsington

    And sometimes it’s ok to recognize that maybe you don’t need to be in a meeting. A lot of people look at the number of meetings they’re in as a measure of visibility or impact or etc, even though they don’t actually contribute much, and fundamentally don’t need to be there. Especially in meetings that are about driving to decisions, there’s a point where more people beyond 5 or so starts decreasing the efficiency of the discussion.

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    1. Emily K

      Seriously, I was going to say – I completely agree that you should only be in a meeting if you have something to contribute. But that doesn’t mean, to me, that everyone invited to a meeting is now forced to come up with something to contribute. It means that the people who don’t have the knowledge, interest, or standing to be a decision-maker or advise a decision-maker, they can reclaim some of their time by just getting an email summarizing any decisions made that will affect them.

      I’ve accepted that there are always going to be 1) meetings used to disseminate information one-way when it’s not really required because people can’t be expected to read their emails or because management wants everyone to hear an announcement at the same time, from them, and 2) a variation on the one-way meeting where recurring round-robin meetings are used solely to motivate people to move projects forward that wouldn’t have enough urgency to get done without people knowing they’re going to have to report back on their progress at a fixed date and time. In some of those meetings, technically, everyone’s contributing something, but there’s no 2-way exchange of information or decision-making discussion happening. It really could have been something where a manager of their admin asks everyone to send their updates to him and compiles them into one email that he sends out to the whole team, but people feel a lot less shame about causing the manager’s summary email to be a few hours or a day late than they do about showing up to a meeting unprepared, so it goes the way it goes.

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      1. Richard Hershberger

        1) I hate those meetings. Reading the email would take a couple of minutes of my time, while sitting through the meeting can be an open-ended time suck. I suspect that in many cases it is because the person calling the meeting lacks the literacy skills to write coherent expository prose.

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    2. Emily K

      Relatedly, a good way to both get people talking and help people figure out whether they really need to be in the meeting, and just make your meetings more effective in general, is to send an agenda to everyone a day or so ahead of time, so people who don’t think great on the spot will have had some time to mull over at least the general topic and think about what their biggest concerns are in that area.

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    3. Sesla

      A car company that rhymes with sesla actually has a point in the handbook that if you find yourself in a meeting which you are not adding valueble contributions to, you should just get up mid-meeting and leave. That said I never had the cojones to put it to the test.

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    4. Butter Makes Things Better

      This concept would’ve saved me a ton of misery at my very first career-track job. One of my big bosses thought it would be a great opportunity for me to sit in on a recurring comedy writers’ room meeting to come up with jokes (a la Letterman’s Top 10). It would have been … except I was too green to handle speaking up in a regular meeting, let alone one such a small one with a ratatat vibe. And I was too socialized never to interrupt or talk over other people. The other five people were all men used to competitive talking, including a Futurama recruit, two longtime industry vets, and a guy who went on to make Time’s 100 Most Influential a few years later. Talk about a set-up for failure! It did a number on my self-esteem. Eek.

      OP, definitely try Alison’s suggestions and, per many other commenters, consider dialing down your expectations about what constitutes meaningful contribution. I bet folks are right that those things will go a long way toward solving your problem.

      In case you give all that the old — and sustained — college try and you still feel in the weeds, I mention my experience on the off-chance that your boss has similarly stuck you in a bad-fit situation. At that point, there’d probably be a next course of action before suggesting an alternative to sitting in the meeting that would make better use of your skills — e.g., for meetings where you don’t contribute in the room, sending a follow-up email to the group for the main idea or question that comes to you after mulling over the discussion later. I do wonder if it would eat up too much political capital to ask to opt out of the meeting altogether. (Again, only after OP tries everyone else’s suggestions first.)

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      1. Precious Wentletrap

        “Does any of this concern me/my department?”
        “When does lunch arrive?”
        “Why aren’t we getting lunch?”
        “Could Batman beat up Goku?”
        “Does this look infected?”
        “No, really, where is lunch?”

        Reply
            1. Richard Hershberger

              You are assuming that the person who called the meeting has the literacy skills to write a coherent email.

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        1. Fortitude Jones

          “Does any of this concern me/my department?”

          I know you’re being facetious, but seriously – why do people insist on making mandatory attendance to meetings where myself or my team don’t actually need to be there because nothing being discussed has to do with me/us?! It drives me crazy. It’s such a waste of time.

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          1. Precious Wentletrap

            That wasn’t entirely facetious and was indeed based on having had too many meetings that, on the off chance they did have something relevant to my job, that one thing could’ve been emailed.

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          2. Tony

            When people are unreasonable and invite me for meaningless meeting without discussing with me, I just ignore or decline the invitation.

            You do not have to tell what coworkers tell you to do !

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    1. RKMK

      As these are 90% of my past meeting thoughts, alongside “Who puts these clowns in charge?” I think we should be friends.

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    2. Tigger

      My favorite- When a big wig analyst in my industry happened to visit valentines day. At the end of the meeting when asked if we had any questions a coworker asked him if he “had any big valentines days plans even though his wife stayed home”

      Reply
    3. Precious Wentletrap

      “What’s your name? Who’s your daddy? Is he rich like me?”
      “Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks?”
      “Do you remember rock n’ roll radio?”
      “Where -have- all the cowboys gone?”

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      1. FabJob Tag

        Did you write the book of love? …
        Do you believe in rock and roll?
        Can music save your mortal soul?
        And can you teach me how to dance real slow?

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    4. Darrell

      I worked in a local TV newsroom. The general manager had a lunch meeting to discuss a series of remote broadcasts we were planning. There was a public service component involved, helping the local food bank collect food for the holidays/ winter. He had sandwiches brought in from a local deli.
      His presentation was informative, and emotional in a rally-the-troops kind of way. There was a clear expectation that we would share his enthusiasm and be ready with appropriate questions.
      When he finished, he kind of clapped his hands, made quick eye contact with everyone in the room and asked “Any questions?”
      And one of the anchors immediately asked “Does anyone have some mustard?”

      It lives on in local TV lore.

      But, hey, it WAS a question!

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    5. Ethyl

      One of the best grandbosses I ever had was very, VERY busy and some days had meetings back to back. He was an EXPERT at moving meetings along, and he used to say “ok, can we be done now?” to end a meeting and I always thought it was kind of inspired. It left juuuuust enough of an opening where if we really had missed something, we could squeeze it in, but it was also clear we needed to be moving on, and his delivery was also good natured enough to where it wasn’t rude at all.

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    6. Soni

      As far as non-question contributions, a low-intoned “As was foretold in the prophesies,” at key points in the conversation may suffice.

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    7. Blue

      Are you my old coworker? Because this is 100% the response he would’ve given our boss had she told us we had to ask a question in every meeting. Right to her face.

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  3. Amber Rose

    You don’t have to be brilliant to contribute. I think you’re putting pressure on yourself to always say something that raises a thoughtful discussion or always brings up new possibilities, but sometimes meaningful just means: something that isn’t staying silent or repeating the same thing over and over. And sometimes you don’t know what will be meaningful.

    I was in a meeting way over my head about optimizing a teapot leak testing process. I don’t build stuff, I’m not an engineer, the drawings all go over my head, I was basically there as a glorified note taker. But one of the “this should be obvious” questions I asked actually brought up something they hadn’t considered.

    It was just a dumb question… that wasn’t actually that dumb. So don’t push yourself to be brilliant. Stick with engaged enough to follow what’s happening and not ask/repeat something which literally just came up a second ago.

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    1. Falling Diphthong

      My husband, an engineer, was in a meeting where a marketing person asked if they could just cut a complicated part in half. The engineers were like “Well that’s ridic–wait a minute, that could actually work.”

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    2. Lily Rowan

      The other day I was in a meeting where my boss was looking for some feedback/brainstorming, which is sometimes hard to get rolling. So I said something like, “My first thought is just that this would be hard to do…” and somehow that got people going! They did have ideas! Just didn’t want to go first. So my non-contribution contribution actually did help.

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    3. Caroline

      The vast majority of my contributions in meetings have to do with establishing the fundamental assumptions everyone is working under… because 90% of the time it turns out people weren’t on the same page about the most basic issues. They probably seem like very stupid questions (but thankfully I have no shame anymore).

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    4. Me

      This is super important. Sometimes the experts end up in an echo chamber. An outside view question can be very beneficial.

      Nothing wrong with asking “dumb” questions. I start mine with, “So I’m sure understand what we’re talking about…x, y, z, right?”

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    5. Not Today Satan

      I agree. I try to remind myself that I hold myself to a standard that I don’t hold anyone else to. Not every comment needs to be mind blowingly awesome. People say mediocre stuff in meetings all the time and don’t live out the rest of their lives in shame.

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      1. Tea Earl Grey Hot

        But is it really a Friday night if I’m not reliving every less-than-awesome thing I’ve ever said?

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        1. Tea Earl Grey Hot

          Seriously, though, this is a good point from Not Today Satan. It’s almost as though I operate like the entire room will stop and all heads swivel towards me the moment words leave my mouth and I’m forever branded as the person who didn’t know an answer and had to ask a question that of course everyone already knew the answer to or someone else would have asked it first and I’m just not keeping up with things and this is the moment everyone finds out I’m a fraud.

          Ok, it’s not that bad. :) But in reality, I ask my question/bring up a point/get clarification, and the conversation moves on without missing a beat.

          Also, practice helps.

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    6. Nessun

      This is what I’m still learning not to fear – the notion of asking when it “might be a dumb question”. My new role is a whole lot of learning, and I’ve had to steel myself before calls to realize that a) just because I’m the only one in the room who doesn’t understand something doesn’t make my lack of knowledge a failure, b) sometimes I will provide a new perspective to those in the know by asking the simpler questions, and c) asking questions is an obvious way to help my boss realize I’m trying to learn – which is a quality she appreciates!

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  4. Narvo Flieboppen

    Your manager would love former coworker of mine. The rest of our department hated when she was in a meeting because she always had to ask 3 – 5 questions at the end. Often belaboring points which were already thoroughly covered or previously refuted as part of the prior discussion. About 1/20 of her questions were needed/valid, the rest was just her way of showing she was contributing. She made a point of specifying this was her secret to business success.

    She was fired.

    Reply
    1. Holly

      I think that’s an uncharitable interpretation of what OP’s manager is asking here – which is to show engagement with the material being discussed.

      Reply
      1. Narvo Flieboppen

        Lack of questions in the moment does not necessarily mean lack of engagement, though. I think requiring someone to ask at least one question at every meeting is not helpful. It may the company culture, but if you have 20+ people in a meeting, does that mean you cannot end without 20+ questions? That’s a pretty deep rabbit hole if you go to far down that route. I’ve been in many meetings where the attendees number in the dozens. I shudder to think how much longer they would have taken if we were all required to respond questions.

        One of my longtime coworkers almost never asks questions or contributes in meetings. He always takes notes, always performs assigned follow up tasks, and is always informed about what happens. The few times he has questions though, they were insightful and helpful.

        If the manager is concerned about engagement, that’s fine, but this forced routine in every meeting is not a good way to resolve that, in my opinion, which may very well be uncharitable.

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        1. Washi

          I think it really depends on the meeting though. If it’s a status update meeting of 20+ people, then I completely agree! But if it’s a brainstorming meeting of 4 people, then I think it’s fair to expect that each person will at least say something. And while I think the manager could have approached this with more nuance/coaching help, I do think it’s better than the manager just assuming that the OP doesn’t care about the job or doesn’t have any good ideas. The manager may be basically be trying to say “I know you’re smart and have a lot to contribute, and it would really benefit everyone if you can speak up in meetings when we’re all gathered together.”

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          1. Name Required

            I’ve also seen scheduled brainstorming meetings where nobody says anything, and then all go back to their desks and complain clandestinely to each other about things brought up in the meeting purposefully to be discussed.

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        2. An Amazing Detective-Slash-Genius

          It doesn’t say in the letter that everyone in the meeting is required to ask a question or contribute…I read it as a young new worker who is less experienced at contributing to meetings and could use the practice. I don’t think this is a good requirement but I think it’s a decent challenge (the line being whether you get a “strike” for not saying anything).

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          1. Falling Diphthong

            I read this as a rule made specifically made for this (perhaps younger, newer) team member, and specifically because she’s coming across as a lump on a log in meetings, and no one can tell if she’s bored or bewildered or secretly listening to the Says You podcast.

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        3. Holly

          I think a charitable interpretation was that the manager thinks that OP would have something meaningful to contribute – not that she should come up with just any BS like the employee you referenced.

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        4. Richard

          Not sure if you read the whole post, but Alison gives a great explanation of why this could be a very appropriate and productive requirement from the manager. Do you think she’s wrong? Why do you think her charitable reading is misguided and disproven by your anecdotes?

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        5. Allonge

          I think I see where you are coming from and indeed this is not the one and best solution to all problems with lack of contribution at meetings.

          However, it can be an easy-to-control, basic SMART objective for someone who is, right now, not looking engaged enough.

          When I started at my third job, the only “for improvement” point I got after six months was to organise bi-weekly 1:1 meetings with my boss. There were some communication issues, it was nobody’s fault, this was not supposed to fix everything ever, but it was an easy to follow direction on how my boss wanted to improve something that was not optimal, it told me where my responsibility started and ended for this improvement, and as it ended up working, there was no need to figure out anything else. I can easily see that LW’s is a similar situation.

          Reply
      2. BRR

        It’s amusing/frustrating to me because I work with several people who ask questions at every meeting and it’s because they’re not engaged with the material. They ask questions that we’ve covered already and they do this at every meeting.

        Reply
        1. LaDeeDa

          And then you have to try not to sound like a jerk when you say “as I said 45 minutes ago BECKY, …. ”

          I have to work really hard on controlling my tone with those people.

          Reply
          1. EinJungerLudendorff

            Although if your meetings run over an hour long, I wouldn’t be suprised that people don’t remember everything :)

            They may need to take better notes though

            Reply
          2. Audrey Puffins

            I find that something like “oh, this ties in with what I mentioned earlier about X…” is the kindest way to say “I ALREADY SAID THAT”. ;)

            Reply
          3. KRM

            Haha I went to a meeting once where the neuro group was presenting. Someone (known for kind of out there questions) asked if they were REALLY attacking these neuro diseases the “correct” way because treating X and Y seemed so ‘after the fact’. The presenter had an AMAZING ability to answer the question (“Because neuro disease starts long before symptoms, we don’t know the root causes yet, and we can’t really regrow neurons in the brain at this moment”) while wearing a facial expression that said “You are an idiot and I can’t believe you said that. You should know better.”.

            Reply
      3. Middle Manager

        I think it’s a balance. I’m annoyed with my staff members and co-workers who go to meetings and literally never contribute anything. I’m also annoyed with staff members and co-workers who clearly just talk to hear their own voice and ask questions that are intended to make themselves look smart, not actually to contribute anything of substance.

        I think this manager might be going to far with the rule, but I think they are probably trying to get their staff to engage, contribute, etc.

        Reply
      4. SheLooksFamiliar

        Perhaps so, but when people are instructed to ask a question – and they genuinely don’t need to – this is the kind of thing that can happen. Sometimes, those in the meeting were already engaged with the team and/or subject matter.

        A long-ago CFO commented that people weren’t asking many questions in our monthly manager’s meeting. Never mind that half the attendees had already collaborated with even the other half, the CFO wanted ENGAGEMENT. Great. We were then subjected to 90 minutes of, ‘So, if I understand your conclusion, Bob, you’re saying water really IS wet after all, right?’ and ‘To piggyback on what Jane just said, you AND your WHOLE TEAM came to this conclusion, right?’ and ‘Wait, did you just say water is wet? That’s great, thanks for letting us know!’ And so on. Our CFO was happy, but the rest of us were anything but.

        Yeah, no, mandatory engagement isn’t a good practice, and I totally ask questions in meetings.

        Reply
    2. AnonyMousse

      I wish I worked at a place like this where mindless performative participation to the extreme is frowned upon. I work at a place with only 6 full time staffer and our weekly meetings regularly takes more than 2 hours. Mostly the meetings consists of the ED regaling us with his tales of his latest Cuban vacation and bragging about how tanned he is, him yelling/berating staff for not being mind readers/doing things that he just changed his mind on 3 min before the meeting started, and certain co workers asking inane question ad infinitum about things that we just talked about 5 minutes ago. It’s enough to drive a person crazy. The cherry on top is that ED insists on having the meeting at 1p on Monday during lunch hour (no, lunch is not provided) but he regularly comes to work late enough that we had to routinely postpone the meeting 1-2 hrs later to accommodate his schedule. He berated me earlier this year for not speaking enough during the meetings but I was actually trying to shorten the torture. SMH

      Reply
    1. OrigCassandra

      I had a great-grandboss once who used #6 to scuttle any idea he didn’t like. I miss that jerk not at all.

      That said, I’m a total #10er, so perhaps I haven’t much room to criticize.

      Reply
    2. CatCat

      #10 totally happened to a coworker and it was amazing.

      The boss asked for his thoughts on the topic she had brought to the meeting. He looked blank and then said, “You know what, I totally spaced out for that part.”

      We all pretty much died laughing.

      Reply
    3. Quiltrrrr

      I have a coworker who does #4, but instead of nodding, she verbally goes ‘yep, uh-huh, yep, I agree’ over and over and over again. It’s continuous. It drives me up the wall. My manager will sometimes ask her to elaborate on her agreement, and it becomes apparent very quickly that she has no idea what she’s talking about or agreeing with.

      Meanwhile, I sit there quietly, and sometimes will bring up a point. My manager knows that I’m following, and when he asks for my opinion, I can give him one. Sometimes I agree; sometimes I don’t. He doesn’t let me get away with not paying attention.

      Reply
      1. Middle Manager

        I had a terrible supervisor once. She had no idea what was going on ever. Once I caught her in a meeting “taking notes” and she was just moving the pen around, she hadn’t even bothered to doodle or write gibberish, the pen wasn’t touching the paper. She did not look smart.

        Reply
      2. only acting normal

        I have a coworker who says “ooooookkkkaaaayyyyy” over and over again. Half the time he’s just filling time until he can disagree or go off on a wild tangent. I want to grab him by the lapels and shake him while screaming “No! It’s not OK!!”

        Reply
    4. Workerbee

      Thank you for this link! I have been annoyed by Emphatic Nodders before, not to mention Repeaters of Thoughts Already Expressed. These tactics seem to fool the higher-ups in my org, alas.

      Reply
  5. Washi

    I know there’s a strong anti-meeting feeling that I’m sure will come out in the comments, but I understand where both the employee and the manager are coming from! When I did community outreach, we had a team meeting each week to look over the metrics from the last week and brainstorm together how to improve any areas where we weren’t meeting our goals (which were very ambitious, so there was always something!) One of my coworkers was always very checked out, and it was really frustrating, in a role where we were expected to contribute ideas, not just be told what to do and be sent on our way.

    Anyway, here are some questions (based on my own experience of this type of meeting) you could ask yourself as the meeting is progressing:
    Why are we doing it this way?
    What assumptions led to this decision and are they correct?
    Is there anyone’s needs we’re not considering?
    If I had to explain this to someone else, could I do it?
    What are the long-ranging consequences for this decision?
    Is this worth the time it will take to implement?
    What might someone find the most confusing about this plan?
    Did someone just have a great idea that I’d never considered? What’s so great about it?

    Reply
    1. AnnaBananna

      Yep!

      I remember going to my first professional conference and I simply could not wrap my head around why these titans of my industry would want to sit around chatting at a roundtable. ‘What do you mean you just talk? What’s the point?’ But as I’ve grown in my career, I understand how taking the time to ‘chat’ about an idea can really harness innovation and troubleshoot cultural obstacles in a meaningful and sustainable way, because you have so many divergent points of view focusing on one issue.

      OP, I definitely support Alison’s point about planning ahead. If you’re an accountant and you’re just talking about TPS reports (which you folks talk about weekly already), maybe consider whether there’s a more efficient way to get the data from the report to stakeholders – or think about why it’s not the most robust medium it could be, and come up with some questions and solutions. :)

      Reply
  6. Cereal Killer

    I read this as the letter writer is very young/ early in their career. I could be totally wrong about this, but as a total introvert I got feedback early in my career along similar lines. Thankfully I never had a boss require me to speak in every meeting. That’s awful! I assure you, if you are young, it gets easier to speak up the more experience you have under your belt. In the meantime, I think the scripts provided are a good jumping off point to sound engaged.

    Reply
    1. Marion Cotesworth-Haye

      It read that way to me too, and reminded me of a meeting I had with a client (C-suite at their company) and my boss when I was still new-ish (~1 year in) to my job post-university. My boss pulled me aside about halfway through the meeting to kindly but firmly tell me that he wanted me to contribute proactively as well — I had done the prep work, the client was paying for both our time, and I needed to show the client why it was worth it to have us *both* there. It’s a tough habit to get into when you’re junior, and you’re right that it gets better with time. My boss’s framing really helped me — from his/the client’s POV, they hired me for a reason and not speaking up was depriving them of the benefit of my perspective and (admittedly somewhat limited, but still!) expertise.

      Reply
    2. Bee

      Yeah, my read on this was that the boss is basically trying to force the OP to get experience contributing in a low-stakes environment. Once they’ve demonstrated comfort chiming in (even just to echo someone else’s concern or note that something seems like a good idea), I bet the boss will back off.

      Reply
      1. Hoya Lawya

        +1.

        I have been in overlawyered meetings where I deliberately ask the junior associate a question. If the junior associate is important enough to bring to the meeting, she is important enough to contribute, even if the partner wants here there to take notes.

        Reply
    3. Blue Eagle

      I second all of the comments in this sub-thread. If the LW starts speaking in meetings when it is low stakes she can begin to get comfortable with contributing as part of the meetings. Then if there is a high stakes issue where she has knowledge and needs to speak up, she won’t be so intimidated.

      Reply
    4. quirkypants

      I think the need to participate depends on your role, or the role you’re being cultivated for, and the size of the meeting.

      I’ve very specifically told one of my team members that I want her to replace me in meetings where I currently have a lot to contribute and represent our entire department. We’re currently both sitting in meetings where she’s getting up to speed. I certainly don’t expect her to be contributing on my level yet, but I have purposefully waited for her to bring up somewhat basic things or left room for her to ask the sort of things someone in our department should care about.

      This may not be as direct a situation like that but the manager in question may be trying to groom the OP to eventually take a more central role in discussions. I think the manger could definitely accomplish that more effectively with different type of feedback but it’s just another perspective to think about.

      Reply
  7. Xtina

    I suggest asking for the agenda prior to the meeting, and then practicing your questions at home. Maybe you only need to ask one question, or make one comment. If you rehearse it at home several times, it will sound less “foreign” coming from you during the meeting, and it may help to pave the way for your engagement in future meetings.

    Reply
  8. An Amazing Detective-Slash-Genius

    These seem to be recurring meetings, right? Take notes at the previous meeting and then at the next meeting, see if there is a point from last week that has not been discussed yet or seems to still be open. Request an update on those things! If it turns out they’re closed already, check it off your list, and if it’s still open then you’ve just reminded the group about something that needs to be done.

    Reply
    1. Sloan Kittering

      Even better, if it seems appropriate, come prepared to share an update about something you checked off from last week. This can be a great contribution and may raise your status in the group too. (Don’t use it for extremely small tasks though: pick the most noteworthy thing you did all week).

      Reply
  9. Sloan Kittering

    There’s a fair number of meetings on my calendar (sigh) where the idea is that someone is going to pitch an idea or a project and are looking at feedback. If this is the case for you OP, these types of meetings are literally hurt by people who sit silently and say nothing. Just share your honest reaction like, ‘this seems like it’s going to be tricky to implement because of X’ or ‘this seems like a great idea because it would reduce time spent on y.’ In other meetings, I disagree that anybody should participate just to participate but I assume if your boss is saying this, she has a reason.

    Reply
    1. BRR

      That’s a really good point if it’s this type of meeting. There are a few people I work with where I’ve presented something that would impact them and say “tear it apart now because it will be better to catch these things before it’s implemented” and hear nothing.

      Reply
      1. Sloan Kittering

        Yeah I do understand that some people are shy and it’s hard to speak up, but there’s something weird if we’re presenting a significant change to key stakeholders and hearing crickets.

        Reply
        1. AnnaBananna

          I think that’s more indicative of a cultural hurdle, more than anything. I can tell when my colleagues are slammed because when we seek feedback during meetings, everyone is dead silent, likely thinking of the many things they have to get back to at their desk. ;)

          Reply
    2. TootsNYC

      Sometimes I think it’s unfair to expect feedback right away. In my co-op, the board president will bring a proposal, it’s the first we’ve heard of it, and we vote. Three days later, I’m saying, “This doesn’t seem like our smartest move,” but we don’t have time to think about it.

      I think perhaps our OP could say, “I want a little time to percolate on this, but I do think the general gist is an important one. “

      Reply
      1. Middle Manager

        Or if it’s occurring regularly that the things presented for feedback require time to consider, it might be worth asking as one of your mandatory questions, “It seems like the ideas that are presented in this meeting feedback regularly are large scale and would benefit from some time to consider in advance of the meeting. Going forward, would be willing to agree that the presenter will make the agenda/overview/materials available at least X amount of time in advance?”

        Reply
  10. Name Required

    Ugh, what a horrible directive. Do you provide feedback after meetings, when you’ve had a chance to digest the material, that your manager is thinking would be better addressed in the meeting?

    As a professional Question Asker (really, I’ve been asked to ask less questions in some meetings … oops), the way my brain works is that I apply the information as part of the way I process receiving that information, creating associations. So, if I hear that we’re changing the process for something that impacts my work, it leads to me thinking through a scenario where that is applied … which could end up with, “What do you see the impact of x process change on y deliverable?” or “It sounds like x process change will cut down delivery time for y deliverable, which will really benefit our customers.” Or something like that.

    I only ask questions I’m genuinely interested in, and honestly, sometimes I would benefit from marinating in the information and trying to answer my own questions before jumping in. I am 100% an asker not a guesser, but I’m learning how to balance that. I’m also an extrovert, which helps, but even extroverts get self-conscious about asking questions or appearing vulnerable.

    You can do it!

    Reply
    1. L. S. Cooper

      I’m much the same way, and was considering suggesting (in a tongue-in-cheek manner) that LW find one of us chatty/questiony people and sit next to us, so we can covertly pass notes. Chatty person won’t get reprimanded for asking too many questions, and the quiet person won’t get reprimanded for not asking enough.
      Definitely not a good idea in the real world, though.

      Reply
    2. Blue

      I am also a Question Asker, which is actually critical for my job and one of the reasons I’m good at it, but I’m sure some people find it annoying! But I like the way you’ve described it here. Most of my questions come from me thinking, “Ok, what does that look like in practice? How would it be implemented?” A lot of the time that generates questions about the process that they haven’t articulated and, frankly, often haven’t thought about.

      Some other ways I come up with questions/comments:
      – Any time ANY kind of question pops into my head, I write it down. Even if it’s just idle curiosity or a minor point that wasn’t completely clear. Sometimes it gets answered, sometimes I decide it doesn’t really matter, sometimes I decide it’s worth following up on.
      – Same is also true of comments. If my internal reaction is, “Yikes, team X will hate that,” I may turn that into a politely worded observation or question about the plan for mitigating the impact on team X.
      – Develop a niche. I found (the hard way) that there are some specific, repeated issues in my line of work that people often don’t think about, so now I’m always looking out for them.
      – Plan ahead. If there are any outstanding issues/questions from previous meetings, write them down and bring them with you. If you can get an agenda, proposal, etc. ahead of time, use that to prepare some questions or comments. If you have an update the group might need or want to hear, make a note of that.

      OP, I ended up developing all of these techniques in grad school specifically to help me get more comfortable commenting during seminars when I didn’t feel like I had anything smart to say. Now, commenting and asking questions in meetings, often on the fly with no preparation, is an integral part of my job. So I promise you that it can get easier! And even if you don’t think you have anything to contribute, my guess is that you’ll find that you do.

      Reply
  11. nnn

    The angel on my shoulder suggests thinking of questions that can be of service to others, even if they don’t apply to you personally. “Will this training be available in person to our colleagues in the branch offices? This seems to important to leave up to the vagaries of videoconference.”

    The devil on my other shoulder suggests, if you’re ordered to ask a question, responding with “Such as?” with an expectant look on your face.

    Reply
    1. TootsNYC

      thinking of questions that can be of service to others, even if they don’t apply to you personally.

      This is how I ended up “teaching” Algebra I in high school. And it’s a reasonable thing to contribute to a meeting.

      Reply
      1. pentamom

        I sometimes ask questions like this, when I get the sense that I’m getting something, but other people might not be clear on it.

        “Am I understanding this right ” and then restate a point. “When we’re working on X, would it be helpful if we….” even if it’s a restatement of something that was pretty obvious to you, as long as it’s not completely duh.

        Reply
  12. Amethystmoon

    Toastmasters helps with this. Sometimes, companies will even pay for an employee’s membership. The table topics are specifically designed for things like this. I highly recommend it, as an introvert. I used to talk to my shoes. Shoes aren’t very good communicators. Had I done it 20 years ago or so, I think my career would have gone in a very different direction.

    If you know the topic of the meeting before you go, you can always take a few minutes to brainstorm different questions on a notepad. Write a few down in case someone else asks one of them.

    Reply
    1. Christmas Carol

      I don’t know about that, I have a pair of stiletto heels that can say a lot, even though they don’t have tongues.

      Reply
      1. Amethystmoon

        You are lucky you can walk in those. I would probably end up re-spraining the knee that I injured originally about 6 years ago, and temporarily re-injured a couple of months ago. Not fun.

        Reply
    2. Seeking Second Childhood

      I’m a new Toastmasters booster… been to six, missed two because of work deadlines…and regretted that, so I’m going to formally join.

      Reply
  13. Sloan Kittering

    I have to be honest I have the opposite problem, in that I deliberately limit myself to one thing (or preferably less) that I share in any meeting. TBH I sometimes over-participate to stave off boredom, since the alternative is to passively sit here for an hour being talked at. I’d rather jump in even though I’m not sure why I’m so necessary. My point being that saying nothing can make it seem like your checked out even if you’re really not, and sometimes participating makes it seem like you’re engaged (even if you’re actually not). Unfortunately these perceptions can matter sometimes when it comes time to making raise / promotion decisions so sometimes it’s better to play the game a little. [Note that I actually think once EVERY meeting is probably too much, depending on the type of meeting].

    Reply
  14. Quinalla

    I know this can be tough as someone who does better with time to digest and reflect – that is me too. Do you get meeting agendas prior to the meeting? If so, review those ahead of time and try and come up with some questions on that agenda. Even if you turn the question into a statement, “How does X work?” is your written question and when it is explained during the meeting a “Ah, I was wondering how X worked, thanks for clarifying.” even better if you can think of a small follow up to that.

    If there are not agendas, can you request one? If your boss balks, tell them you can better prepare to participate if you have an idea of the agenda. I ALWAYS push back when I’m invited to a meeting with no clue of what is happening. Not all meetings need a formal agenda, but even just a few bullet points in an email is better than nothing.

    And yes, take notes, that can help you recall something at the end if you didn’t think of anything during the meeting. And referring to the last meeting is a great idea, follow up on something from then if nothing else and that is utilizing your strengths of having time to mull over it.

    Reply
    1. Falling Diphthong

      I can see where it gets really frustrating that you had a meeting specifically to hash a bunch of stuff out on a given topic in real time*, and then you’re trying to move on to Wednesday’s problems yet fielding a bunch of “Now that I’ve digested Monday’s meeting, I wonder why we do it this way and not that way? Maybe there are other ways?”

      *Sort of like when people tear their hair because Fergus always emails long complicated chains of reasoning where a phone call or quick face-to-face would be a more efficient way to arrive at an answer.

      Reply
    2. pleaset

      This is all fine, but it’s too much work.

      This is not a big deal – the OP should just listen and say “I agree with what [some person] said – that would help me.” Just confirm a good idea.

      Or if something isn’t clear, ask about it. “I’m not sure what you meant by [whatever] – can you tell me more.”

      Listen and give back based on what was said.

      Reply
  15. Dust Bunny

    We have weekly staff meetings (short ones). I do a lot of tedious stuff and everyone knows it, so I don’t have a lot to say, but at least in my job *it’s OK* for me to say, “I’m working on Boring Ongoing Project and handling Periodic Patron Requests as they come up”. I hate it when people are strongarmed into contributing for the sake of contributing.

    Reply
    1. Sloan Kittering

      At least that is an interaction though! You are reminding everybody that this work exists and that you are the one who does it. If you never said that I bet people would be more likely to underestimate how much time that task takes or how important it is, which may be why OP’s boss wants them to speak up more even if OP thinks their work isn’t exciting.

      Reply
      1. Dust Bunny

        Probably not in my department, which is four people who see each other all day, every day. It might matter more in a bigger setting. But if my “contribution” is all of ten seconds and exactly like last week’s, at least I don’t get pressured to be creative about it.

        Reply
    2. Falling Diphthong

      When I was in an office we had weekly short staff meetings that staff had asked for, because it was really helpful to know that Gladiola had the McGuffin project now and Wakeen had a slow week and could take on a couple of tasks.

      Reply
    3. MoopySwarpet

      Our all staff meetings run similarly for me. Inevitably, if I do happen to have some project that is not just “oh, you know, the usual,” my boss usually covers it before I get the chance to. Then I’m left with “As Boss just mentioned, this year’s llama grooming style flip book, and all of the normal nonsense.”

      Reply
  16. LaDeeDa

    Do you take your laptop to the meetings?? Because if so Google is your friend— you can google the topic and fake it- find some questions, or best practices, or a study. And if you do know the topic ahead of time you can do that before the meeting and take some notes prior to going in.

    Reply
  17. Anonymous Bluebonnet

    I’m an admin for a research lab, and I’m just waiting for this issue about commenting in every meeting to come up. The PI will make a point of asking me and the other admin what we’re working on/what we think about what’s being discussed at lab meeting, and sometimes I just want to laugh–like, no, I don’t have any thoughts about the specific statistical model that the researcher used in this paper, and what I’m up to this week is expense reports (something that none of the 12-person research staff needs to know about at all). I contribute when I’m able, and in some meetings that’s several substantive comments/questions/exchanges, but sometimes it’s none! The other admin and I kind of need to be in the room so we know what everyone else is working on to support them, but mostly I find myself trying to avoid eye contact so I don’t get called on like I’m a high school student or something.

    Reply
    1. Allonge

      This is a bit too late, but I would like to challenge the idea that the scientists do not need to know about your handling expense reports. (Obviously you know best, as it’s your job and environtment, but…).

      I chair our team meetings once in a while and in any case have a say in what goes on, and who gets called on to contribute or not. “Once per meeting” is a bit too rigid, but I like to ask that the admins explain what they are working on, so that 1. the team knows that expense reports and such are not magically done by elves overnight, 2. that they can and do take a week (or whatever) and 3. to be aware if there is something new in that field. Does it impact their work that there is a new process for ordering business cards? Probably not, but they need to have a minimum awareness anyway. Just as we prefer that the admins have an overview of the technical work going on, even if they are not expected to understand or contribute to details of it.

      Reply
  18. Cal teacher

    I’ve been on both sides of this, as an introvert who’s scared I’ll sound stupid, and as a leader who gets frustrated when some people are consistently silent (i.e., did they disagree with everything presented? Did they not even pay attention to what was said? What is their attitude about___?)

    Other scripts that have worked for me…

    * I appreciate the info about ___. I think I’ll be able to implement that by ___.
    * I’m having a little trouble picturing how to incorporate ____. I’ll need more time to think about it.
    * Sorry, I’m a little slow to process all of this. I’ll need time to think about ___, ___, and ___. I’ll e-mail my comments later.
    * Everything was really clear and organized. I especially appreciated ___ and ___.

    Reply
    1. nnn

      “Did they disagree with everything presented?” and “What is their attitude about___?” are questions you can ask people directly and in the moment rather than sitting there and getting frustrated by their silence (although it would probably be a bit more tactful to say “Do you disagree with anything?” rather than “Do you disagree with everything?”)

      Reply
      1. Lily Rowan

        The problem with a group of people who feel awkward about participating is that putting either of those questions to the whole group will still result in silence, and directing them to an individual can feel like an attack.

        Reply
    2. Not frustrated but disappointed

      I had a boss use the word “disappointed” when she said that I didn’t contribute to a meeting. She also had me taking notes so I was writing things down rather than jumping in. By the time I had something to say, what I wanted to say was already said. I didn’t think I needed to repeat that same idea?

      Of course, this was never mentioned to me until review time. :)

      Reply
      1. pleaset

        “By the time I had something to say, what I wanted to say was already said. I didn’t think I needed to repeat that same idea”

        You can confirm support, succinctly: “I agree with what Y said – that’s what we should be doing.”
        That’s easy and is actually useful info- that there is support for that idea. It’s not that hard to say a little.

        OP: Don’t make the bar out to be high. Just try something simple.

        Reply
  19. Oregano

    I have a go-to for academic conferences– “I’m curious to know more about X; can you recommend some sources for background reading?”

    Reply
    1. Falling Diphthong

      I was thinking about academic conferences, and how it’s a basic rule if you’re associated with the host group to come up with a question to ask about each presentation, which you ask if everyone is sitting there silently. If discussion is happening without you, then you can let it ride. It’s really a good rule for anyone at a conference to be that person who comes up with a question when the speaker asks for them and everyone else is silent.

      And I type that as an introvert–introversion is not a pass on having to ever engage in social interaction.

      Reply
  20. MeMeMe

    Something to consider is that even if you don’t feel like you have anything of substance to contribute to the conversation, saying anything (positive) at all adds stimulating energy to the group and keeps the conversation going. What you’re contributing to the conversation is (at the very least) your attention and engagement in the meeting, the topic, and working amicably on a team with your coworkers. Even if it’s something simple like, “I liked Jane’s idea to do [XYZ]. Jane, let me know if you need any help with [X].”

    Reply
  21. gsa

    I am a big fan the last two suggestions:

    * Ask about timelines or priorities: “Is there a timeline when you expect X done by?” or “How should we be prioritizing this relative to Z?”

    * Seek insights from history: “Is there anything we learned when we did X last summer that we should incorporate this time?”

    The first one is always important to know, even if you were not the one doing it it will give you an idea of what everybody else is working on and whether or not they will need something from you or you will need something from them and they have other things on their plate.

    The second suggestion, with a little detail from you, can be a really good question.
    The second suggestion, with a little detail from you, can be a really good question.

    “When we did something like this last summer, I thought it turned out [adjective].

    If it could’ve gone better, be prepared to have some level of idea how it might improve.

    Reply
  22. TootsNYC

    I like that “make notes as you go” idea–bcs if there was something that wasn’t completely clear, you can clarify. Or if something seems not clearly explained, you can also clarify.

    And you can say things like, “Lucinda’s procedure seems like it won’t be onerous–I can easily fold that into the procedure I already do.”

    Reply
  23. A Person

    This is a bit of a repeat, but definitely don’t feel like anything you say has to be original / super important! Sometimes in meetings I’m leading, especially smaller ones where we’re making team decisions, all I need from someone is “I agree with person X, I think point Y is especially relevant”.

    Reply
  24. Steve

    Practice your question asking on the boss first:
    What is the underlying goal here?
    How will this course action help us achieve it?
    What alternative tactics should we consider?
    How will we measure success?

    Reply
  25. Deryn

    When I first started out in my position (and to be clear, I am still early in my career, only about three years in), it was really hard for me to switch away from a more academic mindset of grades or pass/fail. When I sent a draft or other documents/assignments to my boss, I treated them like an assignment in school – that it needed to be perfect or the best I could do, like each update was a final product. I was the same in meetings – if I wasn’t confident that something I was saying was the RIGHT response or the BEST suggestion, I wouldn’t say it. Every meeting felt like an oral exam on whether I knew my projects or not. Fortunately I have an awesome boss who I think probably picked up on this and was very encouraging. It helps me to frame my contributions as more about the process and exploring all of the options rather than hitting the mark every single time. Obviously there will be different nuances to each workplace and team, but trying to reframe my mindset helped me a lot!

    Reply
  26. T

    Yup had meetings structured like this, made what should have been a 30 minute meeting last an hour and a half. Sometimes there’s nothing to comment on, you’re doing your job and everything is going well, but you’re forced to make up some crap to say because you’re forced to go around the table. This also gives blowhards a platform to vent with a room full of people forced to listen. Bad management style to conduct meetings this way.

    Reply
  27. Existentialista

    LW, I have had success with the same type of question I used for the “Do you have any questions for us?” part of a job interview, things like, “How does X help drive our company’s objectives this year?”, or “What’s your vision of the role X could play for us in three years?”, or “How can my role as Y help contribute to X?”

    I’ve seen Group Presidents positively beam when you start asking about their long term vision.

    Reply
  28. Sarah N

    I do think this is a skill that can be learned over time, and the more you practice, the better at it you will get! I am a professor and always have some students who believe they are “just bad” at class participation. Now, obviously some people do have anxiety around public speaking that can rise to the level of a medical issue, but that’s not most people (and it does not sound like that is you!). Outside of that category where people really need professional intervention/assistance, for most people speaking in meetings is a skill you can get better at and more comfortable with the more you do it. I think Alison’s ideas of preparing in advance are excellent and work well. I would also suggest trying to imagine you are in a one-on-one meeting rather than a group meeting — if you were simply in a meeting with only your boss or only with one coworker, and you made that person speak the entire time without making the slightest comment, that would be SUPER awkward, right? And you likely would feel compelled to say SOMETHING even if it wasn’t the most brilliant comment in the world, simply to move the conversation along and not make things terribly awkward. So try to bring that one-on-one energy to the group meeting, even though there are multiple people there.

    Reply
  29. league.

    Complimenting somebody else’s idea/contribution/plan is an easy and friendly way to get started with speaking up more. “Julia, I love that idea!” is easy and Julia will, in turn, love you.

    Reply
  30. Me

    Everyone has great suggestions for starters. I also encourage an honest self-reflective look at your contributions and whether your boss is demanding this (kind of unreasonably) based on your history. I have a coworker like this and the optics are really bad. As in, no one thinks he does anything kind of bad. Some meetings you don’t necessarily contribute, but when every meeting involves others contributing except you, it comes across not as needing to process but as allowing everyone else to bear the brunt of the work.

    If that’s the case, then perhaps sitting down with your boss and having a conversation along the lines of…I’ve done some self reflection and realize x, y, z. I’m going to do a, b, c.

    Might give you some breathing room from feeling you have to speak in every meeting (provided boss agrees), so long as you have a plan to engage more and ask specific relevant questions. Also, pay attention to how others are contributing in meetings – the types of questions they ask, the thoughts they contribute, and even how they phrase things. I’ve learned a lot from people whose work and presence I admire in meetings. Modeling (not exact replicating) others can be very helpful.

    Reply
  31. Not One of the Bronte Sisters

    You don’t need to be brilliant. I think your boss just wants to know that you’re engaged in the subject matter. I used to teach and I know what it’s like when you keep hearing from the same people in the room, and many others never say anything–you wonder whether the latter group are even following what’s going on.

    Reply
  32. Hobby Social Scientist

    I’ve recently learned a question that works almost any time. “Why is that the part that is important to you?” Or “What part of that is most important to you?” Be careful to keep your tone light and curious. You don’t want it to come off condescending, “Why is *that* important?”

    Understanding what is the most impact thing and why is always valuable!

    Reply
  33. dealing with dragons

    What I do is write down either goals for the meetings or questions I have about whatever it’s about. Like if it’s a feature discussion, I prepare things like who is it for, what are the goals, etc. If it’s a workstream discussion, then I’ll think about timeline, what is the end product, etc. it’s a lot easier, imo, to do that ahead of time in a calm environment or throughout the time before the meeting instead of during the meeting which might be derailed.

    Reply
  34. Eukomos

    I’m having flashbacks to teaching literature classes and trying to get everyone to participate. Some people are on-the-spot thinkers and some just aren’t. Is there a way for you to find out what will be discussed in advance and come up with a question or comment beforehand? It may also be helpful to imagine you’re having a more casual conversation with just one person about whatever the topic is, many people who can’t come up with anything to say in front of a group can quickly become involved in a one-on-one conversation on the same topic.

    Reply
  35. Hiring Mgr

    “The directive is to ask a question at every meeting and contribute something meaningful or else you have no place there. Any advice?”

    Sorry boss, I don’t have anything today–guess I’ll skip the meeting.

    Reply
  36. VM

    My biggest problem is I go to meetings where you are expected to contribute but certain people will just dominate the conversations. After consistently getting feedback that I needed to “share more” and just “jump in” when it was extremely difficult to do, I started to raise my hand when I wanted do speak. Now, several of us do that during these meetings where the more talkative people dominate. My manager hates it and doesn’t like to “call on us” but it’s really opened up these discussions to more than 3 people.

    Reply
  37. Hey Karma, Over here.

    It’s scary because what does it mean? Is it a general thing, manager wants each person to add something or each person to show he/she was listening. Is it specific, manager wants ME to participate because I don’t seem to be an active meeting member.
    I definitely second, third and fourth the piggy back thing. Listen to what someone else says and add to that if you can’t think of anything because you know, fake it till you make it. Till you all make these meetings more dynamic and less, manager speaks a we listen.

    Reply
  38. Mike

    If your boss is requiring that of everyone, it means there’s a good chance the meetings are just for meeting’s sake and not actually accomplishing anything. It reminds me of a previous boss who would have several-hour long “meetings” with just the 3-4 of us (which usually devolved into him monologue to us, or he’d take a long sales call and leave us twiddling our thumbs for the duration and get mad if we went back to our desks to work). He would insist everyone contribute something, and if someone wasn’t adding anything, – in particular his none-too-bright buddy in drug recovery who he hired to be a delivery driver – he would aggressively point out they’re being quiet and pressure them to add something. And when inevitably, his buddy’s addition was inane and pointless, he would get mad about THAT.

    I ended up not bothering to contribute at all unless I actually had something to add because I had stopped caring about being on his good side, and it forever made me despise meetings over 20 minutes long.

    Reply
    1. Asenath

      The meeting chair makes an enormous difference in whether the meeting is dominated by one or two people, or drags on forever because no one will stop the person who follows “I agree with Jane” with 10 minutes of explanations of why she agrees with Jane, and the minute ways her stance differs.

      But back to the point, there are lots of examples above about good, short contributions to make if the chair insists on everyone contributing. Short questions are far, far better than simply re-stating other people’s contributions, which is boring, repetitive and a waste of time. There’s usually something fairly basic and generic you can ask about – What impact with the propose change have on the X reports I produce? When I have to make a routine report at a meeting on what I’m doing I can often get away with a a sentence – maybe two: “Everything is running smoothly with the training program” with perhaps “The current group finished their training on April 1, and the documentation will be completed on schedule” if you feel like elaborating. This doesn’t work, of course, if some disaster has hit the training progam since the last meeting, but quite often you can get away with a short, pleasant, fairly generic statement.

      Reply
  39. BeachMum

    I’ll add one thing: Don’t start your comment or question with any of the following:

    “I just have a comment”
    “I just have a question”
    “Maybe we should…”

    Just ask or comment or suggest. You want to sound like you know what you’re doing and these qualifiers make you sound young and inexperienced (which you are, but you don’t want to sound that way).

    Reply
  40. Clementine

    Because your manager is leading you to contribute more, I think it’s likely reasonable to lean on your manager the first time or two you set out to contribute. Thus, in advance of the meeting, you can say to your boss -” I’m thinking about asking about X and/or Y. Would that make sense?”

    Even if you don’t want to ask your boss that, practice asking different sorts of questions at home and to friends. And accept that you may ask a silly or poorly-phrased question now and then. It happens, and you’ll have to forgive yourself for it, work to do better, and move on.

    Reply
  41. Batgirl

    OP, in meetings, you’re all in brain storming mode. There is no such thing as a dumb suggestion or question when brainstorming. If you’re super not sure about that, own up that it’s a wild card suggestion or ‘this might sound dumb but’. Just show interest!

    I get that you “need time to process things” but so does everyone else! It’s part of your job to generate the ‘things’ to process. Meetings are the place to spitball and chat. It’s not a presentation of a finished idea.

    But you’re new to this, right? Who are you to suggest how things get done? How do you know you won’t overstep? Why can’t you just be allowed to soak up stuff in your invisibility cape?

    Just take the humble route at first “I’d like to know more, are there any resources for further reading/training/involvement?”
    “Who is the best person to speak to about x?”
    “What’s the best way to communicate about this if I have questions while this is being implemented?”
    “I am new to this and trying to predict how this might work in practice. Can you speak to your experiences when first implementing this?”
    “Are there any potential pitfalls for people inexperienced with x?”

    Reply
    1. Heidi

      I like all of these suggestions. Also, since participation is mandatory, you could give yourself some latitude to introduce topics that were not specifically covered in the meeting. If you have questions about projects that you are working on and you’d like some advice, ask if anyone knows someone who can help or if anyone found a good solution to your problem in the past. It’ll probably be easier to ask good questions about your own projects than other people’s. And I think giving someone the chance to help you when it doesn’t cost them anything generally makes people feel very good about themselves.

      Reply
  42. Deb Morgan

    I had a great boss when I worked retail. I complained to her once about having to start conversations with customers (this was company policy) because I could never think of anything to say. She told me that she just rotated three different conversation topics each time with different customers: weather, local sports (go birds!), and cooking. My point being, you don’t have to have something brilliant to say in order to say something. Alison and the commenters have some great questions/statements that you can use.

    Reply
    1. I Don’t Remember What Name I Used Before

      That’s funny. I hate both cooking and sports, so the only one of those subjects I’d actually be able to converse about with customers at all is the weather.

      Reply
  43. TechWorker

    If it’s an internal meeting then I’d also say don’t be afraid to ask for clarification – I have junior folk on my team who don’t really contribute in meetings cos they’re like ‘I know nothing what do I say!!’ But even saying ‘can you just go over y, I didn’t quite get why x isn’t a better solution’ shows that you’re listening and engaged. (And if it shows that actually you didn’t understand what’s going on? Still more useful for senior team members to know that so they don’t like, assign you work assuming you understand it!)

    Reply
  44. MissDisplaced

    My manager has a similar, but less rigid rule for weekly meetings. But basically he just expects you to give a brief overview of what you’re working on and any highlights of your week. I’d start there OP.
    Most of my team are sales, so that makes sense. But I’m marketing, so my projects tend to run on longer and have fewer highlights (no deal closings or customer meetings for me!). But I’ll generally give an update and highlight when things get published, interesting analytics, upcoming events and the like.

    Reply
  45. James

    When I was in college I had a class called “Colloquium”. They’d bring random people in our field in to give a talk. The class required that we ask a certain number of relevant questions over the course of the semester. My trick was to take notes. What are the main points? How do the minor points interconnect? What information do I have already that’s relevant to this topic? Think of it as a big puzzle, with your work being the corner piece.

    It really helped, and I’ve found that the trick works in meetings as well. Even if I’m just going for the free food, I can usually find some way to tie it into my work and, if need be, ask a relevant question or two. And even if I don’t, folks see me actively listening and processing the information, rather than falling asleep!

    It also provides you with the opportunity to say “I think May had an interesting point; can I get back to her once I’ve had time to consider it?” If you say that without actively listening it sounds like a cop-out; if you say it after taking descent notes, it sounds like you really do have an issue that requires more thought than you can give in an off-the-cuff situation.

    Reply
  46. Lynn Whitehat

    This can be hard when you’re junior. Usually your tasks are really concrete and specific. “The pop-up needs a back button.” “Scores can only be 0-100, so narrow the graph range”. “The ‘OK’ button should be blue”. “The time created should be in the user’s time zone”. You don’t really need a lot of discussion about vision and strategy and the future of the company to add a back button. So meetings can feel like they’re “about nothing”, because they don’t pertain to what you’re doing.

    Most junior people have spent most of their lives in contexts where they’re just given assignments and they do them. They’ve never been asked to think about things like why the organization even exists, how it might adjust to changing trends, or how it can improve at what it does. Kids on a rec-league soccer team don’t have meetings about how to better foster teamwork, healthy exercise, and community spirit. They don’t think about how to cope with a rapidly-growing population and a total lack of land to build new fields on. They’re not charged with creating a rotation so that everyone gets a decent amount of playing time. They’re told to show up at practice, do drills, etc. Which I’m not saying is bad!

    All that organizing work can be invisible, or seem like dumb paper-pushing, if you’ve never thought about it before. If your main role in life has been “I am given tasks and I do them”, it’s hard to get out of that mindset. You’re sitting in a meeting about how the industry is no longer satisfied with what was acceptable yesterday, and thinking “this about nothing. It is just hindering me from my real work, which is checking off tasks”. But you can be part of the larger conversation about the context in which the tasks even exist.

    At *most* companies, *most* of the meetings have a purpose. See if you can identify it, and contribute to it. Even if your job today is to add back buttons

    Reply
    1. Hoya Lawya

      “Most junior people have spent most of their lives in contexts where they’re just given assignments and they do them. They’ve never been asked to think about things like why the organization even exists, how it might adjust to changing trends, or how it can improve at what it does…”

      …which is a great recipe for staying junior. OP’s boss is giving her a tremendous opportunity to voice her opinion about bigger-picture trends and to get noticed. She should embrace it.

      Reply
  47. Bookworm

    As an introvert, I totally identify with this. My org is not completely like this but sometimes we’re prompted if we haven’t said anything and I feel awkward when I say I don’t have anything else to add. So thanks for asking this question!!

    Reply
  48. WorkIsADarkComedy

    I’d love to take meeting management lessons from that grandboss!

    Alison, you’ve had posts where people had specific questions/problems about meetings, but I don’t think you’ve had a post inviting readers to give their best tips on (1) heading off unnecessary meetings at the pass and (2) keeping meetings productive and short. How about one?

    Reply
    1. How about this?

      Standing meetings (where all participants stand up for the duration of the meeting rather than sit in a chair). I can almost guarantee you that there will be no “contributing just to contribute.”

      Reply
  49. learnedthehardway

    If you’re the only person your manager has asked to do this, I would assume it is because they are trying to address an issue that they are concerned about. Try to figure out what that issue is.

    It sounds like your manager is trying to get you to participate in meetings, when perhaps you haven’t been doing so? Is the perception that you’re not listening / paying attention? Or that you’re not engaged and don’t care? Or maybe it’s simply that your manager feels that you need to develop the ability to speak up in meetings in order to get other people to recognize your contributions. Squeaky wheels, and all that.

    If you know who is presenting and they’re someone you can talk to, a way to help them and help yourself could be to ask them what their topic is, and if there’s any particular point they really want to emphasize. Then build a question around that. I would only do this if you really know the person well, though, and if you genuinely can’t come up with something during the meeting.

    Could you take notes in the meetings, and then refer to your notes for the next meeting? That might take some of the pressure off of you to come up with questions in the moment. You could ask a question about the progress on last week’s issue, or comment on the difference between this week and last week on a project’s progress.

    Reply
  50. TANSTAAFL

    Do you get enough information to prepare a head of time? That would be a great way to formulate questions.

    Reply
  51. Angwyshaunce

    I find pleasure in trying to de-construct complex ideas into basic components, which is why I am a fan of analogies (even though they inevitably break down at some point).

    So at meetings, it’s not always knowledge or ideas you can contribute – sometimes, it’s clarity. If two sides are talking at each other, sometimes you can pick up on the disconnect, and help each side understand where the other is coming from. Perhaps an idea being discussed can benefit from being framed in basic terms to help keep focus on the main premise. Oftentimes, two (or more) sides are stuck in a particular perspective, and stepping back to offer a big picture viewpoint can help bridge mis-understandings.

    So even when I don’t necessarily understand the details of one person’s arguments, I can help translate what they are trying to get across to the other side. This has proved to be surprisingly effective in meetings.

    Reply
  52. AnonForThis

    I swear, we work for the same people. I’ve been this directive a number of times, and when I inquired whether I should ask a question just to do it, I was basically told…yes. So it sounds like it’s more about appearances than actually adding any real value.

    Reply
  53. Currently Bill

    One option might be to add another specific component to your plan. Can you specifically look for a way to support a point or view of another quite person in your meeting,? Or of someone who gets talked over a lot? Or a member of a marginalized group?

    Reply
  54. CM

    Ooo. I like these suggestions. I found a few years ago that my brain processes incoming info slower than average — like, this is a test psychologists did on me — and it explained a lot about why I can’t keep up in impromptu brainstorming sessions. By the time I figure out whatever the last person said, someone else is already talking.

    I was always super frustrated that people said I was quiet when, from my POV, the conversation moved impossibly fast and I had no chance to say anything without interrupting.

    What I like about these suggestions is that they’re generic enough that you can say them without deep processing. However, if I wanted to make a meaningful contribution, the reality for me is that I’d still need to either know the topic ahead of time or have everyone pause for a second and let me catch up. OP probably doesn’t have the same problem — my point is that sometimes it’s not shyness that does this; sometimes it’s literally speed.

    Reply
  55. Admin Amber

    I used to keep a list of department projects and things I was working on during the week to discuss at meetings.
    It helped me to review it every day or every other day so I could ask questions on the fly at meetings. That might work for you, but you could tailor this technique to your needs.

    I dreaded meetings too and it helped.

    Reply
  56. Letter Writer

    Thank you for all of the good advice and hilarious jabs that made me laugh. Your time is greatly appreciated.

    Reply
  57. Dana B.S.

    Ugggh…this is reminding me of college when I had a portion of my grade determined by my participation. But then the professor never did anything to help the meek among us chime into the conversation. Every class was dominated by like 3-4 people and the other 15 people would just sit there listening and occasionally getting in a word once every couple classes. I would often start talking at the same time as one of the dominaters and no one would hear me. I would have been far less stressed if I just accepted getting a B in that class on the first day.

    Reply

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