Spetner on meetings: To speak or not to speak

When to speak up, when to hold your tongue, and how to make your words carry weight.

I have a friend who is a master at the art of knowing how and when to speak up in a meeting. He is an attorney, and I serve on a nonprofit board with him.

His meeting skills are truly a wonder to behold. When an idea is raised that he disagrees with, he waits for exactly the right moment to speak up.

He lets others express their views, monitors the room to gauge reactions, then enters the conversation fluidly. When he asserts his will or raises an idea, he does it with humor, professionalism, and relaxed gravitas.

He doesn’t try to intimidate or overwhelm: He simply guides the group to what he feels is the proper conclusion.

He also has a great feel for room dynamics and has a sense of when the momentum is shifting in favor of or in opposition to his proposal. And he knows when to lie back and when to speak up. In the early part of my career, I erred too much on the side of silence. I used to sit in meetings where an idea would be raised that had obvious flaws.

My immediate instinct was to point out the flaws and probe at the reasoning behind them. I knew in my head that I could improve the concept being presented, and I wanted to jump right in.

But I was young, hesitant, and reluctant to trust my gut reactions. So I’d keep quiet. There were valid reasons for holding my tongue. I was often less experienced than others in the meeting and was worried I would end up looking foolish.

Moreover, the colleague presenting the ideas was usually passionate and that well versed in the subject, so who was I to raise objections? And I wasn’t just silent about voicing objections. Sadly, I sometimes suppressed the expression of good ideas. A light bulb would go off in my head and I would get excited about the possibility of a suggestion, but I would still clam up.

It took me years to gain confidence in this art and accept that it was actually my job to voice an opinion. I also began to focus less on how people would react, and more on the substance of
my comments.  

I slowly learned that if I raised issues in a professional, positive, and non-threatening manner, the entire group would benefit from the discussion. I also discovered that a sure-fire way to get management’s attention was to speak up with confidence and insight, and to help guide the group toward a better conclusion.

The converse, of course, is that it’s sometimes best to keep your mouth shut. Silence and listening can be powerful tools as sometimes the true agenda behind a proposal isn’t evident until well into a meeting.

A proposal that certainly seems simple at first can turn out to be emotionally charged or deeply complex, and the only way to find this out is through listening and patience.

I now often have a raging internal dialogue with my brain as I weigh up the options and try to decide if it’s time to jump in with an idea or hold my tongue until the terrain is better illuminated. One of the best filters I have learned for this dilemma comes from an unlikely source, the ancient Sufi mystics of the Middle East.

The Sufis proposed that before voicing an opinion, you should test it against these four questions: Are my words truthful? Are they necessary or beneficial? Can they be said in a kind way? And is this the appropriate time? Their advice has saved me from myself more often than I care to admit.

Don Spetner is a senior corporate adviser with Weber Shandwick. He was previously CCO and CMO for Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at donspetner@gmail.com

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