How do I learn to trust my own judgement and be confident in meetings?
January 2, 2018 12:33 AM   Subscribe

I work in finance for a large university. I'm good at my job, confirmed by feedback from my bosses and others. But I lack confidence in meetings. I always want to check, hedge my bets, and feel unsure. I find it very hard to speak. How can I trust my judgement, and be less scared of being wrong? I am working on this with a therapist. She asked me to think about what WOULD make me trust myself, and I'm coming up blank.

My whole life I've dreaded doing The Wrong Thing, and I hate having to give an answer that I'm even slightly unsure of. Triple check, that's my motto. It is thorough, but it's been paralysing and is now a real problem.

For example, I'm in a meeting with a lot of people more senior than me, and I'm asked for my opinion on whether we should increase a budget or whether we can increase our staffing. My bosses always seem comfortable saying 'yes', 'no', or 'I'll get back to you', and always *appear* to have a strong memory for the figures. My answer is always, 'I'll have to check', because I dread being wrong and having to correct myself. I worry that this makes me look like I'm not good enough, and slowing down progress.

If I want to add my thoughts without being invited, in meetings my voice just does not work! I will be half-thinking what I want to say, but it takes so long for me to properly formulate my idea that I can't get it out, and I feel like I've had a 'Mute' button pressed on me with all the fear of being wrong, embarrassment and pressure.

In general, as well, I have a crushing fear of contradicting people, which adds to the pressure I feel.

I am working on this with a therapist. She asked me to think about what WOULD make me trust myself, and I'm coming up blank.

Any advice on getting more confident and being able to form my thoughts better, and get over my fear of sounding stupid and saying the wrong thing?
posted by NoiselessPenguin to Work & Money (13 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Are you prepared for these meetings? Do you know the agenda ahead of time and can you form an opinion on the topics before you go into the meeting? Can you have the relevant numbers with you in the meetings or accessible during the meeting, if you anticipate having to refer to them during the discussion?

At least in my organisation, unless the meetings are designed as brainstorming sessions, there is a strong expectation, that you know the agenda and can speak to the tabled topics if they are within your area of responsibility, i.e. you are prepared. We tend to have a proposal we bring to the wider group to get everybody to sign off on. You should make sure to be aligned with your reporting manager on the proposals so as to not to put them on the spot in front of their peers/bosses.

Also, I'll get back to you is another way of saying I'll have to think about it/check. So make that your default answer until you are able to overcome some of the other stuff.
posted by koahiatamadl at 1:27 AM on January 2, 2018 [5 favorites]

Seconding koahiatamadl – if you can prepare ahead of time, do.

Check with your reporting manager before these meetings too – ask them what might come up so you can prepare. This is professional.

If not, then "I'll have to check" is the perfect answer.

Regarding your "mute" button – this still happens to me occasionally and I'm a project director, heh. However, with experience, preparation, and lots of alignment (talk, talk, talk), I've come to recognize that when my "mute" button gets pressed, it's because something is very off indeed. In these cases, "I'm not sure I understand" and/or "I'll need to check that" are go-to, depending on the context.

Being quiet is a strength too. To help flesh out your therapist's question, one I've been asked is: "how do you think you've earned the trust of others?" If you're a very empathetic person, sometimes it's also a big help to take note of people you genuinely admire, list what it is you admire about them, and then see what you do that's similar. A flip side of that for building confidence is to recognize when someone you admire makes mistakes too, how they handle it, and the aftermath. One of my most admired directors is a guy who I've seen raked over the coals in meetings and have major budget issues, but he keeps his cool, gets the job done, and looks for solutions. I feel a lot better when I get the occasional coal-raking now.
posted by fraula at 2:11 AM on January 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Would it help to realise that there are many ways to be a great contributor to a meeting other than being 100% right?

If somebody directly asks you for a specific fact, accuracy matters. But at least in my experience of meetings -- and I have both run and participated in many -- specific facts are a small minority of the contributions. Here is a list of other things that are incredibly valuable:

- Presenting a mangled or ill-thought-through idea, but that gives somebody else a seed for a better one
- Being willing to put to words what others are thinking but are too scared or shy to mention
- Walking through the implications of different possibilities, even if the facts are unknown
- Saying something to break the ice when there's a wall of silence or fraught emotional dynamics
- Helping to reframe a problem or situation so we all look at it a different way
- Moving the meeting along from where it got stuck by highlighting the goals or big picture once again

Given this, I would suggest that you shift your goal here from being "right" to being a good contributor. One of the hardest things about running a meeting is just getting people to talk and to be willing to possibly be wrong. If you are willing to risk speaking up -- even if it means you're "wrong" sometimes! -- then you will be huge asset in any meeting.
posted by forza at 3:22 AM on January 2, 2018 [22 favorites]

I'm going to also suggest Toastmasters. Toastmasters will provide you with opportunities to practice speaking in front of a group but in a low-stakes, supportive environment. The confidence you build there will carry over to your work environment.

Other thoughts:
It sounds like your goal of talking in meetings is "making a 100% accurate declarative statement about a thing." As stated above, there are lots of ways to talk in meetings and add value. These include "Janet, are you saying that the widgets will self-destruct if no corrective action is taken?" and "I like Phyllis's idea about the death star" and "I'd like to volunteer for that project" and "Margaret, I have the numbers you need at my desk - I'll get them to you ASAP."

The suggestions to get and think about the agenda beforehand are good. For me, another big thing is caring. I talk more in a meeting when I have a personal stake in something.

If you don't already, try taking notes. I find that it helps me get into a nerdy headspace where I care more about what's happening than how I come across. Get out of your head and into the meeting. Then you will come across as giving a shit, and that's never a bad thing. :)
posted by bunderful at 6:03 AM on January 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

I don't know whether or not this will help you but I took a lesson from the male partners in the law firms in which I worked -- they will absolutely bullshit with a straight face and then if someone questions them, they'll hedge. And it works.

I had a discussion with a senior non-partner female attorney about this some years ago -- in her opinion, it was the ability to bullshit with confidence that made the biggest difference between male and female attorneys. The more I thought and watched, the more true that seemed. I would just AGONIZE over whether I had been right or wrong in a decision I had made, and the men seemed to be just very okay with the idea that if they weren't right, it was correctable.

So then a few months ago, I was negotiating a relatively important deal, and I had taken comments from the general counsel at my company, working on the assumption that he knew more than I did on a particular issue, and it turned out that he was so wrong that I should have been humiliated by raising his point. But the other side, after kind of giving me that look like "Are you sure you're an attorney?", were really okay with just moving on and forgetting about it. Suffice it to say that I don't take comments from our general counsel any more. In fact, the next time he started in on that point, I told him that until he could show me ONE publicly available credit agreement that reflected his thinking, I was never going to even consider raising that issue with ANYONE. He was very upset and yet he couldn't find even one in the entire online EDGAR site. This guy regularly makes mistakes that would get a first year associate fired at a reputable law firm.

Point being: Don't worry about being right. If it turns out you're wrong, move on. It can all be corrected and no one cares as much as you do.
posted by janey47 at 6:26 AM on January 2, 2018 [7 favorites]

Good news: speaking up with confidence in meetings is a skill that you can practice and learn! Based on my experience, here are a few tips:

-As has been said above, absolutely get the agenda ahead of time, look it over, think about the points that will be covered, and bring whatever notes or reference materials you need to answer questions about it. When I am on the agenda for a meeting I will often have a summary type of handout or talking point, and then a larger, more detailed packet for my own reference in answering questions. So for budget, you might actually print out the budget and highlight the relevant lines, and then do a bulleted list of "here are the relevant things we might want to talk about."
-Learn to give qualified answers + prompt follow-up. So what this looks like is that in the meeting you say something like "My recollection is that we ran out of money in the supplies line item last fiscal year and had to transfer money in from the training line. Let me check last year's numbers and get back to you." Make a note in your meeting notes: "look up supply budget from last year, send to group." When you get back to your desk, get the info and send an email to the people who were at the meeting (I like to reply-all to the meeting invitation): "As we discussed this morning, in 2017, we needed to transfer $2400 from training to supplies to cover a shortfall. Therefore, I suggest we move forward with the plan to increase the supply budget for next year."
-Correcting your own errors (within reason) makes you look more confident, not less. This doesn't have to be a huge dramatic mea culpa, just a quick email: "On reviewing my notes, I find I misspoke this morning: the actual amount we have available for recruitment is $3700, not $7300. Apologies for the error and please feel free to reach out if you need more information."
-For the "contradiction" fear: you can correct things without flatly contradicting. So if someone says "oh, sure, we can do that" and you know that you absolutely can't? You might say something like "Going back to the staffing increase amounts for a minute, I've found our numbers, and it looks like the amount we have available is $47,000. That would be enough to hire a fellow, but the average rates for an FTE hire are considerably higher than that." (You would have known that staffing was on the agenda, and come to the meeting with your current budget numbers and some high-level info about what the costs associated with staffing are.) Alternately, if you think someone is wrong but aren't sure: "I don't have the numbers with me in the room, but I will pull our average staffing cost information and our available budget and send it to the group as a follow-up."
-If the issue is not one of factual contradiction but more that you disagree with an opinion, etc., learn to phrase it in ways like "I love the vision Brandford has for our recruitment next year; I agree that new ideas are important to our continued growth. I am a little concerned that we don't have enough money to support that project in a single year. Brandford, are there potentially ways that we could phase the implementation so we could spread the cost over a longer period of time?"
-If you think a point was incomplete and want to add to it or jump off from it: "I completely agree that our equipment budget is out of date. In fact, this has reminded me of some other conversations that Plephanie and I have been having about a potential new approach for managing our mobile telephone bill. It sounds like maybe we should talk offline about how our efforts might dovetail."
-for the psychological side, just remember: there are very few places where a minor mistake, promptly corrected, is going to have any sort of long-lasting negative consequences. Unless you are a surgeon or a nuclear power plant engineer or a fighter pilot, there is almost always plenty of time to correct something or tweak it or add nuance. And in fact, making these kind of small corrections and follow-ups will actually build your reputation over time, because you are seen as a person who checks their work and doesn't let balls drop.

Another pro tip: Practice saying these kinds of sentences out loud. Start by saying it to a teddy bear or a plant or the cat, then offer to buy a friend lunch or coffee in exchange for some role-playing practice. Your therapist could potentially help with this, too!

Good luck!
posted by oblique red at 6:58 AM on January 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

One thing I learned in grad school that really helped me a lot: when I start getting those nagging doubts, my instinct is to tell myself "don't worry, self, I've got this, I won't actually screw up." But telling myself that doesn't really do much. I still have those worries, now I just feel like I shouldn't to boot, so I'm even more muddled up emotionally. So instead, I ignore that instinct and instead of telling myself I shouldn't have them, I dive into those doubts - "ok, self, I'm worried I'll screw this up? Fine, let's say I do. What's the actual fallout of that screw-up?" And nearly always, I find that while my anxiety was telling me the fallout would be unspecified but bad bad bad, an actual critical examination of what the screw-up would look like shows me that I actually have a very good idea of what the fallout would be, and what it would be is absolutely no big deal, so hey let's go for it!
posted by solotoro at 7:26 AM on January 2, 2018

In addition to other angles people are bringing up, it might be helpful to look at the DiSC style profile. The "C" is for "conscientiousness," and Cs tend to value accuracy, information, thorough assessment, etc., and live in fear of being wrong in front of other people. As a C myself, I found it immensely helpful to know that about 75% of the population simply does not care nearly as much as I do about making errors, and that it's not that everyone else at work is so much better at their work that they can effortlessly make decisions, it's that they often don't care as much about making sure it's the 100% rightest decision based on every single analysis of every single factor ever, even the unknown ones. (And, often, they get annoyed when people get overly hung up on the "perfect analysis" part rather than just making some educated best-guesses.)

It also helped me, and is helping me, a great deal to have a manager who is the total opposite of that, who makes mistakes in meetings all the time, and who just apologizes when she's corrected or when it doesn't work, and we all move on, and we all still highly respect her. Because she's not being careless, she's just human and sometimes makes mistakes.

You're human. You do not sound careless. You get to make mistakes, especially if you've got a safety net of more-senior people who'd have to sign off on the plan, anyway.
posted by lazuli at 8:30 AM on January 2, 2018 [4 favorites]

Are you afraid of being wrong? If so, that's a specific thing you an bring to your therapist to work on. I would also suggest looking at Rejection Therapy!
posted by DarlingBri at 11:02 AM on January 2, 2018

It may help to formulate your reservations out loud, as in: "Spontaneously, I would say X, Y and Z; however, I would like to check this and get back to you." Or: "My gut says X, but I am unsure about Y aspect / the exact Z, so I will need to double check." This provides helpful information and might make you feel more secure in answering? Best of luck!
posted by any_name_in_a_storm at 11:31 AM on January 2, 2018

It's a very minor thing, but saying something out loud early in a meeting, even if it's before the meeting starts properly and its just an observation on the weather, or whatever can help you get used to hearing your own voice in the room. Sometimes that's helpful for the mute thing. Similarly, if you do want to say something at a particular moment, try audibly clearing your throat.
posted by plonkee at 12:34 PM on January 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

One of the Post-It notes adorning the wall in front of me asks, "What would I do if I was a badass?" It helps me get into the mindset of a badass, so I can do badass things like talk to strangers or leave my bedroom. Being The Almighty Mommy Goddess helps me answer questions here. MyName is terrified of being wrong, or screwing up, or doing more harm than good, or interacting with people in any way, shape, or form. But The Almighty Mommy Goddess, well, she’s a freaking Goddess. And who ever heard of a Goddess being afraid of people?

I got an email today from one of the 5608 lists I'm on that talked about creating a persona you can step into when you want to tackle a challenging task. I'm still working on that one. I'm not entirely sure who my persona is, but I know she's a badass. Since I’m a writer, maybe my persona will be Moira Roberts, or Stephanie King, or Sariyah Angelou, or Fran Kellerman, or Jeannie Picoult. I write in the mental health field, so maybe I’ll go with Sally Freud, or Emily Schrodinger, or Ivana Pavlov, or Annmarie Maslow. Maybe I’ll use the names for my daughter my ex didn’t want to use. Ananda Noel. Wendelin Joy. Lainey Sue. Tilly Jane. Maybe I’ll pick a Goddess. Morrigan, Athena, Nike, Andraste, Durga, Freya, Kali, Macha, Minerva, Cerridwen, Hecate, Ishtar, or Vesta.

Ever watch NCIS? It's a show about Navy cops solving crime (basically). There's an ancillary character named Ned Dorneget, who's a junior agent. He's always anxious, nervous, terrified of screwing up. He DOES screw up quite a lot. In one episode, he forgets not only a pen but his gun, despite regulations stating that agents shall be armed at all times they're out of the office or their home. Ned would totally relate to your question.

But then suddenly, Ned's confident, speaking with ease, refusing to fall for the main characters' pranks. What's changed? He now views himself as Super Agent L. J. Tibbs, who's calm, cool, and collected, not to mention confident and competent. (The main protagonist is Leroy Jethro Gibbs, hence Ned's tribute.) When Ned went on a mission, he screwed things up on the regular. On one, he lost the person he was supposed to be guarding. On another, he got clocked when he tried to tell the bad guy, "Please stop." But when L. J. Tibbs went on a mission, he saved dozens of lives from a terrorist attack.

Instead of asking yourself what would make you trust yourself, try asking instead what trusting yourself would look like, would feel like. Would you feel like a badass Goddess if you trusted yourself? Would you feel calm, cool, collected, confident, and competent? Would other people be able to tell you trusted yourself? Would you carry yourself differently? Maybe standing straighter or smiling more?

What would happen if you acted like you trust yourself? The old “fake it til you make it” is a classic for a reason. I’ve found at times that I’ve faked it so well I didn’t even realize I was faking it. In other words, I made it without even realizing I’d done so. There’s a book called The As If Principle that goes into a lot of actionable, workable solutionsto help you get things done while acting as if you have the confidence already.
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 4:36 PM on January 2, 2018

It's a fact that meetings are hard, and you're not alone in finding it hard to speak up. If I have my facts right, James Madison, one of the most important architects of the US Constitution, never addressed the Constitutional Convention. He made his arguments privately.

Research has shown that a powerful personality has undue influence is meetings. The choices made at the meeting tend to reflect the boss or the bossiest. Methods that reduce the effect of personality can result in better decisions.

I agree with any_name_in_a_storm that working on ways to express yourself that seem less threatening may help. The declarative "I think we should XXX" may be difficult, when "Should we look into XXX" may be easier. Also, you can piggy back on someone else's idea that you like: "I like Tim's idea of XXX because YYYY."
posted by SemiSalt at 4:41 PM on January 2, 2018

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