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Sound smarter in meetings
#managing_yourself Are you afraid of saying something foolish in a group meeting? Here's how I manage the anxiety of saying something dumb, and appearing smarter than I am in the process.
My parents said that I was always a reticent child. While I can’t confirm this, they claim I didn’t start speaking until I was four. Even now, as an adult, I still find it challenging to participate in a large group meeting, and for me, I believe much of the anxiety is rooted in my fear of saying something foolish.
As the years have passed, I frequently meet others at work who struggle with this, too, and it’s a typical conversation I have with people I coach.
I started to make progress on my anxiety during my second year as the youngest software engineering manager at Saba Software. I recall being in a meeting with the CEO, my supervisor, and various product managers listening to how the e-learning platform we were working on was to evolve. I sat quietly during the entire meeting deeply unsettled by what I thought was a flawed business strategy but paralyzed in fear that what I thought was an obvious solution had not been discussed. Unlike countless moments throughout my life, I found myself inexplicably unable to keep my thoughts to myself. Towards the end of the meeting, I vociferously protested the flaws in the strategy.
The room seemed stunned.
After I finished speaking, I sat there thinking to myself whether or not I had just committed some horrible sin speaking up in front of such senior executives and disagreeing with everyone in the room. Would I get fired? Would people laugh at me? I just didn’t know. The few seconds of silence felt like an eternity.
To my pleasant surprise, the CEO acknowledged my point of view, and an active discussion ensued, which dragged the meeting past its end time. I remember contributing little to the ensuing discussion, but relieved that I did not make a fool of myself. In the years that followed, my idea impacted our product positively.
Slowly, I began to open up in group meetings - sometimes, I made valuable contributions to the discussion, and many times I was a distraction. With the benefit of time, I learned that most people tend to remember those moments you were brilliant and forget those moments when you sounded foolish. To sound smarter in group meetings, I realized I needed first to speak up.
Still, those moments when my thoughts were incoherent bothered me, especially when the meetings were large or the stakeholders were influential.
My breakthrough in solving this problem came to me some years ago, while I was taking notes during a group meeting. Instead of writing down the facts of the meeting, I started to write down my thoughts and feelings as the session progressed. When I disagreed with the presenter’s point of view, I would write my opinion down and work out what my concerns were by taking into account the perspective of others in the room who would likely provide counter-arguments. For better or worse, there tends to be a lot of air in group meetings and so utilizing those interstitial moments to work out my thoughts on paper proved to be invaluable. Often, I would realize that there were flaws in my logic as the meeting progressed, and the pause that I imposed on myself by working out my thinking on paper saved me from disrupting the meeting. When I did speak up, I discovered a dramatic improvement in the lucidity of my arguments since I had done the homework to rebut arguments a priori.
However, there are some downsides to doing this. By the time I’ve worked out my argument, the meeting has frequently moved on to another topic. Timing your remarks can be critical, so I’ve had to pick and choose when I should ask the group to revisit an issue. Luckily, professional behavior generally allows for such transgressions. While I wish I could work faster, I have found that I’ve become quicker in sorting out my thoughts on paper in real-time with deliberate practice. For those times, when it is far too late to make my point, my homework allowed me to write a quick email to the presenter to share my thoughts.
To sound smarter in group meetings, I’ve learned the importance of thinking before you speak on paper; but you need to muster up the courage to speak up first.