How do I help a coworker learn to speak up?
September 13, 2018 8:31 PM   Subscribe

I have a colleague who tends to speak really quietly, mumble, and trail off at the end of sentences. This leads to people (including me) asking her pretty much every time she says something to speak up so we can understand her. As her mentor (and for everyone's sake), I want to find ways to help. Tips/advice/resources?

Normally I would put this in the category of "don't give unsolicited advice", but

(1) I've been assigned to be her mentor;
(2) we have a lot of meetings with remote attendees who miss out if they can't hear someone speak; and
(3) eventually, in her role, she'll be expected to occasionally speak in court, and for this reason we might not renew her contract even though her work is otherwise good.

I used to have the same issue - and actually used that as a reason it shouldn't be a dealbreaker when we were deciding whether to hire her - but unfortunately I'm not sure my strategy is replicable. Basically, I abruptly gained self-confidence after a bit of a mental breakdown, then passive-aggressively decided "you want me to speak up? FINE I'LL YELL", only to have people tell me that was a normal volume. So, um, I'm not sure what advice that leads to.

She does seem shy (although ugh, I don't like that word), but luckily we're pretty good about giving people space to speak - including going around the table in meetings to give everyone a chance - and to be clear I'm not looking to change her personality or anything. It's just the issue of people being able to understand her that I'm concerned about.

Another coworker suggested Toastmasters to her, but it doesn't seem like the kind of thing she's interested in.

Should I ask if this is something she wants to work on before bombarding her with suggestions? I don't really know how to do this mentorship thing.

I would also welcome any general mentorship advice/resources.
posted by ersatzhuman to Human Relations (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Another coworker suggested Toastmasters to her, but it doesn't seem like the kind of thing she's interested in.

This is not about stuff she is "interested in". This is about gaining a skill she needs for her job (or most interactions with people, to be honest). I haven't done Toastmasters, but I know people who have, and it seems like it might help.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 8:37 PM on September 13, 2018 [8 favorites]

You are her mentor. You owe it to her to give her honest feedback about something that is having a significant impact on her job performance. So you need to let her know not only that her low voice is a probably but specifically why it is an issue and the importance/severity of the problem.

And then because you are a mentor and not a boss, you don't order her to do anything. Instead, assuming that she agrees that she wants to work on this, you have a collaborative conversation where the two of you work together to brainstorm strategies that she thinks might work for her.

There are dozens of strategies that might help. Toastmaster is just one of them. So you help her by offering things to consider and support her in making a plan that will work for her. You can also provide accountability for her choice by following up to see how her plan is going and if it needs adjustment.
posted by metahawk at 8:50 PM on September 13, 2018 [22 favorites]

A couple of people I have supervised have responded to something along the lines of "I hired you for your ideas. When you mumble and/or don't speak up in meetings, you rob the company of your ideas and decrease your value. Stop it." It's pretty blunt, but in my experience some people respond to the idea that they are harming the company more readily than they will respond to the idea that they are harming their self or limiting their future prospects. Just something to try.
posted by OrangeDisk at 9:00 PM on September 13, 2018 [9 favorites]

If she's mumbled all her life, her voice/mouth/chest muscles may be actually unused to the kind of effort legible speaking takes. Suggest legit voice lessons, the kind that voice actors and radio hosts get - how to enunciate, how to throw your voice all over the room, warm up exercises so that speaking in this new way doesn't leave you voiceless the next day. This will have the added bonus of getting her used to speaking up in an environment where people praise her for it.

In my case this means I still have a speech impediment (1 consonant practically missing) but I get kudos for my public speaking because enunciating everything else means people's brains fill in the missing sound. My lessons were from the same speech therapist who first tried to fix the impediment, but she also worked with radio people and when we gave up, she gave me their exercises.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 9:47 PM on September 13, 2018 [9 favorites]

Can you roleplay with her? As her mentor, maybe work with her to project. Commandeer a large conference room, sit on opposite sides, and read each other the minutes of the last meeting. Or a story printed out from the paper. She will be able to hear how you do it and test out how her voice sounds. Then do that with her own ideas before the next meeting.
posted by goofyfoot at 10:29 PM on September 13, 2018 [5 favorites]

Perhaps start by throwing the question back onto her, to ask her to identify the things she sees as convincing or desirable in people making presentations? 'What do you think a good presentation looks and sounds like?' And it is presentation, I think, that you're describing—formal delivery of spoken matter to an assembled audience, rather than changing the way she speaks socially or one-on-one. It's a role, not an inherent quality.

As an example, I train first aiders, and at the beginning of the course, ask the question: what do you think a 'good' first aider sounds and acts like? How would you like to be treated? The answers are usually along the lines of---they're confident, they know what they're talking about, they're reassuring, they're clear, they don't muck about or second-guess themselves, they inspire trust. That sets the expectations then for the way the trainees practice treating each other, even if they're ordinarily quiet or less confident or indecisive people, because they've set the expectations themselves.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 11:28 PM on September 13, 2018 [6 favorites]

I would make her watch one of her presentations, filmed, and write a self evaluation with a five point action plan to improve her verbal communication. Explain that you do it with all your mentees to get them court-ready. I am always big on "show, don't tell."
posted by athirstforsalt at 11:42 PM on September 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

Can you fix this in the moment? When she mumbles, say, what? I missed that.

Can you speak up?

Hey, I just can't hear you.

Rinse. Repeat with respect and honesty.
posted by Kalmya at 3:12 AM on September 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

Just be honest with her. Tell her she's far too quiet, you used to have that problem and only when you felt like you were yelling, were you actually speaking at a volume other people considered normal.
She just needs practice so, as her mentor, get her to practice speaking louder and louder until she's loud enough to be heard clearly.

This of course assumes this is her normal speaking pattern and not something that only presents itself during meetings and other scenarios where she might feel pressured/insecure/embarassed. If she can speak at a normal volume during casual conversations with friends then its a confidence issue and that's a whole other ball game
posted by missmagenta at 3:40 AM on September 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

As her mentor, you owe it to her to give her direct feedback on this, because it's something that will impede her career if she isn't able to fix it (e.g. your #3 in the question). It sounds like it's something she's largely unaware of (you always sound louder in your own head).

I used to be pretty quiet/mumbly, until a supervisor bought me a feedback coffee and was like, "I'm old and going deaf from too many rock concerts in my misspent youth, and half the time I can't hear your plan over the clatter of everyone else's laptops. I know you have good ideas because I read over and co-sign your work, but I need to hear it too!"

I didn't end up doing Toastmasters or anything, but I did re-calibrate my speaking voice to project a bit more. Reasons why this worked for me, when literally 20 years of "she's very quiet, needs to speak up more" on written evaluations dating back to kindergarten did not:
(1) the slightly jokey tone;
(2) the person framed it as helping him overcome his (possibly made up) problem;
(3) as I started speaking louder and people could actually hear me, I could see that others agreed with my ideas, which gave me more confidence, which helped me speak up more;
(4) feedback coffee. Feedback should always come with coffee/tea
posted by basalganglia at 4:15 AM on September 14, 2018 [10 favorites]

Absolutely don't interrupt her when she says something to tell her she's saying it wrong. That's confidence destroying and next time she simply won't say anything. I'm getting upset and humiliated just reading that.

Confirming and restating what she's said (then referring back to her for confirmation) is the way to go if she's said something that didn't come across fully in a meeting.

I think the idea of going to a big conference room and trying to read to each other or talk to each other across it sounds great, though.
posted by ambrosen at 4:23 AM on September 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

I think the trouble with reading to each other across a room is that her voice will probably sounds perfectly fine to her, because she hears her voice differently due to bone conduction than everybody else hears her through the air, and because she’s used to hearing her voice as it is, so she just sounds normal to herself. I think if you take this approach you may need to record it and play it back. Which can be an unpleasant experience but is much more useful than playing it purely by ear, so to speak.

Just using a phone video set up across the room, with each of you taking it in turns to read from the other side if the room for comparison, would probably work. But as above, helping her to find some proper vocal coaching needs to follow the “See how quiet you are?” stage, or she may well just become totally self-conscious and not want to speak at all.
posted by penguin pie at 5:36 AM on September 14, 2018

(4) feedback coffee. Feedback should always come with coffee/tea

It's science!
posted by solotoro at 5:42 AM on September 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

It's science! Whoaaa! Cool!

In addition to Toastmasters (which I think is very appropriate in this situation) you could also suggest media training. Not necessarily because she's going to be on camera, although she may eventually be, but it might be more of a one-on-one thing than a group/public speaking thing like Toastmasters.
posted by Liesl at 6:27 AM on September 14, 2018

A couple of people I have supervised have responded to something along the lines of "I hired you for your ideas. When you mumble and/or don't speak up in meetings, you rob the company of your ideas and decrease your value. Stop it." It's pretty blunt, but in my experience some people respond to the idea that they are harming the company more readily than they will respond to the idea that they are harming their self or limiting their future prospects. Just something to try.

OP - an easy way to check whether you might be overstepping your boundaries or being offensive is to consider whether the same style of feedback would be acceptable if her problem was in hearing others, rather than in projecting to them. You do not know and should not inquire whether she has mental or physical disabilities contributing to her manner of speaking (if she has a condition that entitles her to legal protections, it's for her to disclose or not, as she sees fit). but a lot of the suggestions here are intrusive and wildly infantilising.

you only have to tell her, in a neutral, non-accusatory, and not overly familiar manner, that she needs to improve her public speaking skills in order for other people to understand her, and that enunciation and projecting are the main issues. How she speaks on her own time is irrelevant: she has to be comprehensible in meetings, on the phone, and in court, period. Attending some kind of confidence-building or support group function on her own time is out of line for an employer to suggest and borderline from a co-worker - unless and except if she says she'd like to improve but just can't/doesn't know how, and then absolutely do. Speaking skills are exactly that: skills, not virtues. scolding her as if her low skill level is a vice or a deliberate affront or a childish affectation or an offense against the company is completely unacceptable whether or not it gets a 'response.'

you can tell her that the best way to practice is with another person listening to give immediate feedback, and offer to be that person so that she can rehearse. and tell her that the only way to assess herself objectively is by recording herself and playing it back ( if self-consciousness is the cause of the problem, she will not want to do this; that is her own issue to work out privately). If she is humiliated by this, the worst part of it will be the confirmation that other people notice and talk about it, so the more brisk and straightforward you can be, the better - attempts to spare her feelings by being overly intimate or personal or carrying the criticism into her personal or social life will be counterproductive as well as unjustifiable.

this is like a situation where she never learned to drive but needs a license to be officially qualified for a job: it's very hard to learn under pressure as an adult who's never done it, but she has to, you're telling her in the clearest language that she has to, you're there to help, and there's no room to negotiate.
posted by queenofbithynia at 9:12 AM on September 14, 2018 [7 favorites]

I agree with missmagenta. Talk to her honestly over coffee. Perhaps present her with some options you've thought up for improving for her to choose between: ToastMasters, voice lessons, etc. She gets to choose, but she has to do one of them.

I have been a quiet talker in the past and it really helped to learn concrete stuff like, "This is your diaphragm. Speak from there to be heard."
posted by purple_bird at 10:25 AM on September 14, 2018

You do not know and should not inquire whether she has mental or physical disabilities contributing to her manner of speaking

Seconded. I do have an otherwise-unremarkable physical condition that contributes to very soft speech. While I can project briefly if I need to, it is extraordinarily physically uncomfortable, and no amount of badgering, confidence-building, or education about speaking from the diaphragm is going to change that.

You and I have no way of knowing what her situation might be. But I can just about guarantee you that she has been dealing with a long history of people's intrusive, patronizing, infantilizing behavior because of it. I encourage you to be straightforward and respectful. Let her tell you what she's willing to do before you present her with a list of options and suggestions. She may well have been considering her options on this already.

Remember: you have expertise in how her speech patterns are undermining her in that company, but she is the best available expert on why she speaks as she does.
posted by sculpin at 11:51 AM on September 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

Thanks all.

Your comments reminded me there's a professional development organization in our field that offers oral advocacy workshops (which I feel silly for not remembering earlier). I think this is the kind of suggestion that makes it clear the goal is improving at her job, instead of being intrusive or making it a personal issue.

Fiasco da Gama, your idea was even more useful than you probably intended - it prompted me to ask myself "what do you think a 'good' mentor sounds and acts like?" My boss, who I'd want to emulate as a good mentor, errs on the side of over-communicating in a direct, respectful manner (saying "this is the problem and this is why it's valuable to fix it"), instead of under-communicating or being indirect (e.g. nudging someone to speak up or lying by saying he was hard of hearing).

We met yesterday and I actually asked her whether speaking in court was something she even wanted out of her career. She said she wasn't sure because public speaking isn't one of her strengths, which provided a great opening for telling her about the workshops. I also told her directly that she needed to speak clearly and loudly in meetings so people can hear her, and that I noticed she spoke a bit louder for the rest of the meeting when someone reminded her, so it might help to just tell herself before every meeting to remember that she'll need to feel like she's yelling.

As well, I asked for her feedback on my mentorship, and she gave some ideas on information I could include to give clearer instructions when delegating work. This was really helpful, and I hope the exchange made it clear that we're trying to collaborate to get better at our jobs.
posted by ersatzhuman at 10:02 AM on September 15, 2018 [6 favorites]

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