We’ve all been there: the staff meeting that seems to go on forever with co-workers arguing the finer points of copy paper weight while you struggle to gain their attention long enough to discuss a crucial new budget item.
Even this extrovert can have a hard time getting heard in group situations when faced with railroaders and professional complainers. But introverts can have a particularly difficult time getting their points of view across in meetings and conversations. That’s because they don’t like to interrupt and don’t excel at thinking on their feet, says Nancy Ancowitz, business communication coach and author of Self-Promotion for Introverts®: The Quiet Guide to Getting Ahead.
Here are some tips for being heard in group discussions, whether your voice is literally the quietest in the room or you just have a hard time speaking up in meetings:
Answering difficult questions on the spot can be tough for introverts, who typically need time to reflect before jumping in with an answer. So, come up with a “filler” answer that will give you some time to gather your thoughts, advises Ancowitz. For example, you can say, “That’s a great question. No one has ever asked me that. My initial thoughts are XYZ. If you’d like to know more, I’d be happy to do a little research and get back to you by the end of the day.”
As uncomfortable as it can feel, getting heard at a meeting can require you to get a little more aggressive than you’re used to. “Audibly clear your throat, put up your index finger, make eye contact with a key person at the meeting, say their name, and lean in to get their attention,” suggests Ancowitz.
And try to get acquainted with the fine art of interrupting. “In certain work environments, it’s the norm, and it’s otherwise impossible to get heard,” she explains. “Start by saying something positive, like, ‘Yes, Sandy. I’d like to add that…’”
If a louder, more aggressive approach doesn’t work, Ancowitz suggests taking the opposite tack and talking more quietly. It can sometimes get more attention than speaking in a raised voice and seems to “cut through” the din of a noisy meeting.
Having your discussion points on the agenda—and giving them a few practice runs before the meeting—can ensure you’ll have the time, space, and confidence to speak your piece. You can also enlist the support of sympathetic co-workers ahead of time and recommend ground rules, such as “one voice at a time,” to the facilitator, suggests Ancowitz.
Or consider going a step further and taking on the role of facilitator. “That position often gives you the authority to set the agenda, manage the flow of the conversation, and interject to bring the conversation back on track when it goes off course,” says Ancowitz.
Sometimes you might feel like the quietest person in the room because you actually are the quietest person in the room! You might simply have a quieter voice that doesn’t carry well or stand out in a room full of louder people.
While you may not be able to (or want to!) go from being soft-spoken to a total loudmouth, there are steps you can take to “make your voice heard”—not just figuratively but literally. Standing up straight and breathing from your diaphragm—the muscle that supports your lungs—can help, but that’s hard to do when you’re nervous and your breathing is shallow and quick. One simple but effective breathing exercise that can help is to take a controlled breath where the exhale is a beat or two longer than the inhale. This can help calm your fight-or-flight response and make it easier to speak clearly and confidently.
Even if your voice isn’t booming, it helps if you can enunciate clearly and speak slowly. “I recently had a meeting in which the most quiet person commanded the room. She presented herself as if she had something to say: she spoke clearly, emphasized key words, took her time and paused occasionally, had good posture, and made eye contact, at turns, with each participant. Others at the meeting leaned in to listen,” says Ancowitz.
Let’s face it, meetings might never become your favorite part of your work day. But by taking a proactive—and slightly more assertive—stance, you can at least make them a little less painful. And maybe, once you start taking charge, you can also help keep those meetings moving along to make them shorter. I’d second that motion!