Speaking with confidence
November 23, 2009 7:11 AM   Subscribe

How can I start speaking confidently without worrying about people disagreeing with me?

During the past couple of years I (male, 20s) spent a lot of time around people who frequently criticized and nitpicked the things I said. This has made me less confident expressing my opinions and thoughts in conversation. Instead of speaking with confidence, I'm internally anticipating every possible disagreement with what I'm saying. As a result, I sound like I'm not sure of myself, which makes people even less likely to agree with me.

It has even come to the point of affecting my internal dialogue. I'll formulate a thought, and then reflexively poke holes in it.

How do I break out of this cycle? It's more a reflex than a conscious habit, making it difficult to will myself to stop doing it. I have distanced myself from the unsupportive people mentioned earlier, and am starting to socialize more with friendlier people. (However, I have always been more of a lone wolf, and that is unlikely to change soon.)

Note: I think the problem is more specific than general low self-confidence, since I have great self-confidence in many respects (opinion of my intelligence, ability to succeed, attractiveness, and to a certain extent social skills). FWIW, I don't have a history of trauma, depression or any other mental illness.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (7 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Put yourself into situations where disagreement is required, so that it doesn't become so high-stakes for someone to poke holes in your arguments. Toastmasters, debate clubs, even an improv comedy workshop can help with this. I don't think the fact that people disagree with you is so much the problem as the idea that every time someone disagrees with you, it's a negative reflection on you and how valid your opinions are.
posted by xingcat at 7:18 AM on November 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

The internal self-correcting mechanism isn't necessarily bad. The key is to modulate it for yourself so that you use it to improve your thought processes and the expression of them. Focus the energy on the topic, rather than on the self-worth surrounding it.

Learn to recognize (or imagine one, if necessary) the difference between the people who criticize and nit pick because they are assholes, and those who do it because they feel like you are working together toward a solution or better understanding of some kind.
posted by gjc at 7:30 AM on November 23, 2009

Some of us grew up in families that criticized and nitpicked like that. You're relatively lucky, since your bad experience was as an adult, so you have less to unlearn.

a/ I'm going to guess that people are interrupting you with their nitpicks. You might reply, "If you want to hear what I have to say, please let me finish. This is a conversation, not a war."

b/ On the other hand, you may have gotten into the habit of making incredibly long statements with elaborate prefaces that attempt to answer every possible counterargument even before it's made. Many people will interrupt that sort of statement and try to bring you to the point. Your solution to that, if applicable, is just to stop doing it. Say what you have to say and deal with objections later. See (a).
posted by JimN2TAW at 7:34 AM on November 23, 2009

For me, it's two things:

1. Assign much less value to the judgment of other people. I find this important generally, but especially with what you specifically ask about. Most of us spend a whole lot of energy worrying about the (real or imagined) judgments of people whose opinions and thoughts we don't actually esteem very much. I realized that there are really only a few people in my life whose opinion of me really matters (and who have earned that respect), and I pay attention to their judgments carefully. Also, experts speaking within their area of expertise deserve careful, critical listening. Everyone else does not deserve that power over me, mostly because their judgments are snap, are crap, and are mostly about themselves.

2. Know whereof you speak. I'm a professor, so I've developed a habit of speaking with authority even when I don't know what the hell I'm talking about. So I've tried to learn to STFU when I don't know what I'm talking about, and not to flinch when I do. If I'm talking about the economy with someone who clearly knows a lot about it, I'll turn to asking questions so that I can learn. TV and all the talking heads talking out of their asses at us all day seem to have conditioned lots of people to think that we all should have opinions about everything. I have learned the power of saying "I don't really have an opinion on that, what made you reach yours?"
posted by LooseFilter at 8:15 AM on November 23, 2009 [9 favorites]

Also, as a last thought, maybe contemplating how to disempower the effect of someone disagreeing with you seems to have. I relish informed disagreement, because then lively conversation is possible. You will not escape people disagreeing with you, but you can absolutely change how you react to it.
posted by LooseFilter at 8:19 AM on November 23, 2009

Cite your sources in your speech. There are ways to do that unpedantically.

For instance, rather than laying down a blanket statement as if it is gospel:

"Actually, birds didn't evolve from dinosaurs, they evolved from sabre-toothed tigers."

And then, by presenting it as unequivocally true, being forced to defend it if someone knows or thinks they know otherwise...casually cite your source. And by citing your source, you are giving the impression that all you mean to say is that you read somewhere that this was true. Or if you haven't done research on the subject yourself, say so.

For instance:

"Actually, birds didn't evolve from dinosaurs, they evolved from sabre-toothed tigers. Or so Darth Fedor says in his book---I can't say as I've done my own research on the subject, but Fedor doesn't appear to be talking shit. But you never know."

Basically what you would be doing is shifting the responsibility for the veracity of whatever statement you made onto someone else, in this example it would be me. In other statements it could be actual authors of actual books, or friends, or whoever. "According to Wikipedia, dinosaurs actually evolved from unicorns. Take Wikipedia's word for what you will."

If you have done thorough and scholarly research on a subject, just be gentle. "Actually, I wrote my thesis on this---if you're not careful I'll talk your ear off about it."

Qualifying your statements in these ways allows you to say what you want to say without having to live or die by its correctness. Remember a few small qualifications, though:

1. DON'T BULLSHIT. If you don't know, say you don't know.
2. LET OTHER PEOPLE BE RIGHT sometimes. Even if they aren't. You would be surprised to find out how often you're wrong about them being wrong.
3. DON'T GLOAT. By all means, if after a disagreement you feel like doing so, do after-the-fact fact-checking and research. But NEVER--and this more than anything else is for the sake of strengthening your humility muscle--confront the person the next day or week with a dossier of evidence and explain to them how they were actually wrong. The benefit of doing the post-disagreement research is solely personal enrichment for you. You can't treat your relationships like a policy debate.

Okay, one minute prep and 30 seconds for rebuttal.
posted by Darth Fedor at 11:59 AM on November 23, 2009

There's some pretty good advice up above. I would like to add the following:

Don't approach a conversation as if it is combat. Try to enter into a group by listening first. There are people in the group with whom you will never agree. There are others with whom you immediately agree. Listen to how these people interact and decide how to join the conversation within the bounds of the existing interaction. If they are yelling but not beating each other up, it is OK to yell. If they are citing serious sources, be prepared to cite. If they are just debating the merits of two baseball teams, stand back and enjoy the nonsense. If you want to join the conversation, start by reinforcing someone who has already spoken. People will not see you as combative if what you say has already been introduced into the conversation.

When you encounter disagreement, stop and listen to what is being said. Most people use the time while others are talking to prepare their next statement. You will succeed if you use that time to listen to what others are saying. When you rebut, you will be informed about the conversation, not just blurting out an opinion.

Speak softly. The softer you speak, the more people will lean in to hear what you are saying. They will be listening to you.
posted by Old Geezer at 2:39 PM on November 23, 2009

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