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How to speak up and be heard in meetings

Updated: Nov 16, 2021

I have worked with several clients who needed to use English in meetings and on conference calls with international colleagues. All of these clients were intelligent, educated and talented people and yet the thought of needing to use English in meetings was terrifying. These clients used several strategies to help them:

  • letting someone else talk for them

  • not speaking in the meeting

  • having lessons where they worked on vocabulary, pronunciation and fluency

  • having sessions with a psychologist

  • avoiding meetings altogether!

I'll leave it to you to figure out which strategies were more useful for these clients.

Avoidance Avoidance is a very common strategy, particularly among people who suffer from language anxiety. It works in the short term because it gets us out of a painful situation and we cam avoid dealing with the situation and our feelings about it.

However, avoidance doesn't work in the long term. If you are a leader or manager and you are scared of speaking up in meetings, for how long can you continue to avoid the problem? For how long can you expect others to do your work for you? If you feel unable to share your valuable thoughts, ideas and opinions, the company you work for is less able to grow and flourish. You are less able to grow and flourish too, and avoidance will not solve that problem. In the long term, the only strategy that works is dealing with the problem with patience, kindness and consistency. And when we're talking about language anxiety, you need a two-pronged strategy: you need to develop your language and strengthen your mindset.

Dealing with language On the face of it, this should be easy. All you need to do is work with a good teacher and learn the language that is missing from your current range. Easy, right? Well, it should be. But as we all know, ensuring you have the exact words and phrases you need for every situation is tough, especially when you need to be able to produce this language in real time, in an appropriate manner and with intelligible pronunciation. So, how can you begin to tackle this issue? Well, firstly, you need to chunk the problem down. "I need to learn language for meetings" is much more difficult to solve than "I need to learn phrases for eliciting opinions", for example. So your first task is to list the specific areas that are difficult for you by asking questions and listing answers:

  • Are there parts of meetings that are especially hard to deal with? What are they? Why are they difficult? Answers might include being interrupted or eliciting opinions from others.

  • Are there situations that are problematic on a daily or weekly basis? What are they? Answers might include a challenging colleague who talks over you or forgetting your words when you feel stressed.

  • If you could improve one area of using English in meetings, what area would make the biggest difference to you? Answers might include being able to chair the meeting with confidence.

Once you have a list of specific problems, it becomes far easier to take action. Let's say you have identified that you are weak at eliciting and responding to opinions. You can now look for useful language that allows you to fulfil these language functions. Language can be found in course books, from teachers, from websites or from YouTube channels. You need to find, record and memorise this language, working on it until you can produce it in real time under any conditions at all.

Dealing with mindset We can think about mindset using the first three letters of the alphabet: A - Attitude

B - Beliefs

C - Courage

Let's look at these in more detail. Attitude We need to develop a positive attitude towards our problems which means looking for solutions rather than dwelling on our weaknesses. Committing to improve our linguistic ability is a solutions to the problem, rather than burying our heads in the sand and hoping no-one will ask us to comment. With the right attitude, we can solve all the problems life throws at us.

Beliefs Our negative beliefs eat away at our confidence. If we believe that our pronunciation is awful and no-one will understand what we say, we will find it far more difficult to speak up and voice our opinions. Therefore, if you feel shy or lack confidence to speak English at work, you need to tackle the underlying belief in order to move past it. Working with a sympathetic teacher can definitely help here, but if you suffer from very deep anxiety, you may need to explore your beliefs in more detail and depth.

Courage Finally, all the language in the world is of no use without the courage to use it! Remember, "courage" does not mean having no fear. It means taking action despite the fear. You can build your courage slowly and in gradual steps. For example, you could aim to elicit two opinions in one meeting and respond to them as well as you can. In the following meeting, you could elicit three opinions and clarify what the speaker meant.

Remember that slow, steady progress over time is better than trying to do it all at once.

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