The guide to being heard at work

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‘Speak up, Johnson!’ I’ll never forget those words, oft-barked at me by my primary school teacher.

The thing is, it never did anything more than make the room louder as the other children began to giggle, then I’d stutter and fluster trying to ‘speak up’, and then wish the world would swallow me up.

‘You need to learn to speak up Johnson!’

But how exactly does one do that? I wouldn’t describe myself as a particularly shy or nervous child, nor am I likewise in adulthood, but making my voice heard has not always come naturally.

Why not? Simply a lack of confidence, which everyone experiences in varying degrees of depth and frequency. A lack of self-belief? Or external influences, from within a workplace, for example?

As with most things, it’s a combination of all the above.

“Sometimes it’s a lack of confidence, but it can also relate to a set of beliefs that might come from the company culture, such as ‘the boss is always right’, ‘senior leaders should be followed and not challenged,” says Kate Atkin, a professional speaker and coach.

How important is your voice ?

Additionally, people can be inhibited by believing that they don’t have anything to add, or are not senior enough to voice an opinion. Some are simply too worried about coming across as stupid. While others may prefer to think first and speak a formed thought later, which seems perfectly sensible, but it can mean they miss out on air time in meetings, something that also befalls people who are introverted (more about this below under the subheading Ignore the quiet ones at your loss).

And struggling to be heard in a workplace doesn’t just impact the shy, the introvert or the unconfident, it can affect people at different stages in their lives, even one day or week to the next.

The key question that people need to ask first is: why do they want to be heard in the first place? “In everything we do we have a purpose that is driving us,” says Caroline Holt, founder of Attitude Coach. “When people can get in touch with why it matters to speak, to contribute, then they will find themselves speaking and contributing if they have a more expansive purpose, such as being able to add value.”

Ignore the quiet ones at your loss

In an interview with The Guardian in 2012, Susan Cain, author of Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking, talks about how Western culture is extrovert, how we favour action over contemplation, and how the rise of big business has only amplified this.

But arguably business has fostered this extrovert environment to its detriment. “Businesses are missing out on the value the quiet ones bring,” says Holt. “In rooms with lots of people talking, often it’s the quiet one who has the best idea, if they’re given the space. If the majority white middle-aged male business leaders realised how much value is contained within every single employee in their company, they would do more to illicit that value. They would see it add to their bottom line, it would make their business better and more effective. They would want to make the space for the quiet ones.

Tips for individuals

  • “Have courage to speak up – don’t think you have to word it ‘right’.
  • “Do it with consideration, i.e. if you are going to challenge, think about the other person and how they will feel.
  • “Do it with conviction – don’t apologise for having an opinion. You are entitled to it.
  • “Individuals who need to grow their confidence can start by contributing to a meeting through voicing their agreement with something within the first 15-20 minutes (often people silently agree, or nod, but voicing your agreement can help you grow in confidence, and it helps other people see you as willing to add to the discussion),” says Atkin
  • “If you find it challenging speaking up in meetings, get someone on your side. If you know someone in the meeting who you feel confident and comfortable talking to, ask them to make some space for you when the meeting is in progress, to invite you in,” says Holt

Atkin’s tips for leaders

  • Ensure agendas are circulated prior to meetings, and not just immediately prior, but with enough notice to give people a chance to think about the topics being discussed.
  • Chairs of meetings can invite contributions from those who have remained quiet
  • Leaders need to be open to challenge, discussion and show they value opinions of others. No-one is always right (even though we might like to think we are!).

Neil Johnson is a freelance business journalist who contributes regularly to trade publications and member organisations, covering employability, recruitment, business trends and industrial analysis.

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