Do you sit quietly in meetings and just observe, sometimes willing yourself to voice an idea or opinion but afraid of having attention drawn to yourself — or worse — be ridiculed?
Gaynor Parkin, founder and chief executive of Umbrella, is a registered psychologist specialising in workplace wellbeing and resilience. She says there are many and varied reasons why some fear speaking up and sharing their opinions in team meetings, while others are naturally imbued with confidence.
"Some of it comes down to previous life experience," she says. "Some children are taught or encouraged to speak up and have learnt that it's fun, whereas others may have had negative experiences and vow never to do it again. Whether or not a person has had opportunities to practise and whether they've received training and support are also factors."
She notes that a person's innate personality — whether they're introverted or extroverted — has much to do with communication style. "Some may like time to think and process before voicing an opinion whereas others may be happy sharing their verbal thought monologue."
Fear of criticism or a negative response, "no one will like what I say", is one of the chief reasons people stay quiet in meetings, Parkin says. "Fatigue can also have a bearing. Given how busy and stretched many people are at work, sometimes people will just sit in a meeting and think, 'I don't have the energy to participate'."
In organisations where there is limited trust between colleagues, or where leaders show apparent bias, people are less likely to speak up. "And more junior people may also worry that voicing an opinion in front of senior staff might be career-limiting," Parkin says.
She notes that psychological research shows women are less likely than men to share an opinion in a meeting unless they are very confident of it — 'I need to be certain this is accurate before I share it', but from the research and her personal experience, she doesn't think gender stereotypes are helpful. "More helpful is asking how we create workplace environments where people feel safe to share their thoughts and opinions. This fits with current support for a more diverse and inclusive workplace."
Parkin says it's natural for young people or those who are new to an organisation to stay quiet for a time before feeling able to contribute in meetings, particularly where there's a power imbalance, "but we're also seeing a generational shift where more and more young people are voicing up to challenge the status quo".
For those who fear having an idea or opinion ridiculed, Parkin suggests some self-help methods that can be useful in gaining confidence in speaking and in building resilience against negative reactions.
"Practice is helpful — write down what you want to say, practice with someone else and ask for feedback, or record yourself and play it back. Ask a colleague to support you or back you up. Choose meetings that you care about less and start with those, working up to more difficult meetings."
Parkin says it's also important to watch the negative self-talk. "What are you saying to yourself before, during and after? Rather than focusing on all things you don't like or think you're doing wrong, try to hold a balanced view — what did you also do well? Get feedback from others on your strengths and where you can improve. And remember that generally, others are less critical of us than we are of ourselves. "
Another way for people to put their point across without speaking up in a meeting is to have a face-to-face meeting with a manager or colleague beforehand and ask them to convey it to the meeting. A platform like group messaging can be an easier way for some to communicate their views until they're able to gain confidence in speaking publicly, and Parkin says this also has the advantage of giving the contributor time to think before making a suggestion, which particularly suits those with an introverted personality.
If various self-help methods have been tried and people are still too fearful to speak up, it may be beneficial to work with a counsellor or psychologist experienced in the field of confidence-building and resilience.
Parkin says clients seeking help in improving confidence at Umbrella are taught practical confidence-boosting skills, how to bounce back when things don't go well and how to build on their strengths. "We may use video or other ways of practising in a safe environment before the person takes new skills back to their workplace."