How to Speak Up More in Meetings: The Unwritten Rules

Meetings can be tricky to navigate for anyone. But women often have some extra challenges that men don't face. Researchers have found that women speak less than men do at meetings, and, as a result of this, their contributions are often underestimated. But they can also be judged more harshly than men if others perceive that they speak a lot.

Given the importance and sensitivity of this topic, I wanted to include this as a topic in my current series of articles about the unwritten rules of work. (Here's a link to the series' first article, on professional appearance, if you missed it and would like to catch up.) Today, I want to give you both the confidence and the practical strategies you need to be heard.


What Keeps You From Speaking at Meetings?

In your next meeting, pay attention to your comfort level voicing your ideas and opinions. If you find yourself not saying much, take a few minutes to reflect about what's really holding you back. Here are some common reasons I see time and again in my work with leaders. Which ones resonate with you?

  • You feel like you don't know enough about the topic or that you know less than everyone else. This is not your area of expertise.

  • You're not comfortable speaking off the top of your head.

  • Putting your idea out there feels risky. What if they reject it?

  • You hesitate to speak up around people with more experience or tenure than you have.

  • You feel that it's rude to talk over or interrupt others, especially if they're more senior than you are, and that’s what it would take to share your idea in this setting. Or you don't want to seem pushy.

How to Speak Up More

Now that you have a better sense of why you don’t speak up in meetings, you can work on reducing your hesitation. For many people, this involves shifting their mindset and expectations of themselves.

If you're not comfortable speaking off the cuff or putting your ideas out there, realize that you're expected to do both more and more as you advance as a leader. Consider making these areas a focus of your leadership development, and look for safe ways to practice, such as volunteer opportunities.

If talking over others or interrupting feels rude to you, remember that you can be heard while still honoring your value of respecting others. First, hone your ability to read the room and adjust your style accordingly. In a meeting where everyone is being loud, passionate and outspoken, you can "amp up" your typical approach without stepping on others' toes. In a meeting with this kind of crowd, it can be helpful to make your points early before everyone really gets charged up.

Also consider whether any beliefs from your culture or your family might impact whether you speak up. For example, "I should always defer to people who are older and more experienced" or "No one likes women who talk too much." These ideas can be so deeply engrained in you that you're not even aware of them until you start reflecting about your underlying assumptions or values.

One of the biggest shifts you can make is realizing that you can add value to a meeting even when you don't have expertise or experience in the area being discussed. Sometimes your fresh perspective is the very thing that makes you valuable. When everyone else has been immersed in a topic, they may be unable to "see the forest for the trees" the way that you can as a relative outsider.

You don't always have to have the answer or solution, either. Others can benefit just from hearing how you think about the problem. Your approach might be one that they had not considered. You can even add value just by synthesizing and summarizing what you are hearing. When you make statements like "Here are the key opportunities and roadblocks I'm hearing …" or "Kevin, it sounds like you and Debra actually have similar goals here, but you're just stating them a little differently …" you help keep meetings on track and focused.

Don't Go It Alone

As with so many other aspects of developing as a leader, speaking more in meetings gets easier when you enlist an ally in your cause. Ask a trusted colleague to help you enter the conversation. They can say something like "Mona, you've handled situations like this. I'd love to hear your insights."

I also have a variety of products and services to help you build your confidence around speaking up. A great starting point is the title "Communicating With Impact from my Leadership EDGE Series℠. And if you have questions about other unwritten rules at work, please don't hesitate to drop me a note. I may answer your question in an upcoming blog article.