Talk Sooner, Softer

David Presswell offers a couple of practical suggestions for those who find it difficult to make their voice heard in groups

Picture the scene, one that may be all too familiar to those of us of a more introverted, reflective nature.  You are in a meeting – the larger and more formal it is, the worse it tends to be – and you are aware you have not yet spoken.  The reason for this (at least, the one you give yourself) is that you want to make certain that, when you do speak, it is something really worth saying.  So far, you haven’t quite formulated that killer contribution.

There was something you could have mentioned earlier, but then the conversation moved on.  And you missed another chance just now because you weren’t fully listening to what your colleague has just said – you were too busy formulating a thought of your own.  But wait, this might be your chance to make a point you’re pretty sure no one has yet made. Just a matter of waiting for a gap and – someone else got there first.  So, it’s back to not saying anything then.

Over time, this pattern can become self-reinforcing as the anxiety about speaking up makes doing so all the harder.  You are left dreading meetings, whilst your colleagues are deprived of the contribution you might make.  Ideally, more expansive colleagues will notice and start to allow more space for quieter ones, putting more time into consideration and less into the delivery of what they have to say.  But then again they may not.  So what can you do to break the spiral?

There is a piece of advice I have taken myself and offered to clients over the years and it makes a significant difference – ‘Talk sooner, softer’.

First, the ‘sooner’.  Part of the difficulty in speaking up is when you have been silent for so long there feels to be an additional scrutiny of when you do speak.   ‘If you have waited this long’, you almost hear them say, ‘it had better be pretty insightful’.  Talk sooner, and that pressure falls away.  Simply making sure your voice is heard early in a meeting as part of the conversation from the very start, the time when everyone is establishing their place, makes it so much easier for you to contribute later and to do so in a less self-conscious, more collegiate way.

But this then begs the question, ’Say what?’  And here the ‘softer’ comes in.  Many of us hold the untested assumption that each and every contribution to a meeting should be an authoritative assertion or a priceless insight.  Not a bit of it.  At the beginning of any gathering, most conversation is social, what sociologists term ‘phatic’, ie. communication that is primarily to establish social contact and to express sociability rather than any specific meaning.  But, in the meeting itself, valuable contributions can span everything from agreeing with a colleague’s view, to encouraging them to unpack a statement to offering congratulations.

’Talking softer’ can also mean taking further pressure off yourself by acknowledging a thought as half-formed.  For instance, the use of ‘softeners’ such as ‘I wondered whether…’ or ‘It’s just an impression, but…’; and it can be as simple as asking a question:  ‘Does anyone here have insight into the results our competitors are getting in this space?’ or ‘Has anyone else noticed that whenever we announce ‘X’, ‘Y’ happens?’.  In fact, contributions of this sort could be seen as much more supportive of team process than statements of assertion and insight.

Certainly, there are occasions when these options are less applicable, when giving a speech or a presentation for instance – the subject of the next article.  Meanwhile, a gentle encouragement to fellow introverts to ‘talk sooner, softer’.

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