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ImageIf you have a question for our Career Coach, E-mail Helen at careers@ReConnectAfrica.com

Dear Helen

I would be most grateful if you could help me solve this problem I can not find answers to.

I have observed that I usually do not make contributions at meetings. I listen more rather than talk. I always feel bad about this as I think my colleagues might think I don't know anything. Especially at the office during team meetings. I have tried looking at how best I can change, but to no avail.

I hope you will get back to me with a positive clue to help me reduce this shortcoming.

Thank you,

Margaret, Ghana

Dear Margaret

First of all, let me say that you sound like a very nice person who is good at listening and is open to hearing other people’s opinions. In the workplace, however, it is also important to be heard or – as you have picked up – people might consider that you have nothing to contribute. Having said that, there is no point contributing unless you are confident that what you have to say has merit. As someone once said, ‘it is better to be silent than to speak and confirm your ignorance.’

I would suggest that you consider two things: do you feel competent enough to contribute and do you have the confidence to contribute? We are often, quite rightly, reluctant to say much if we are not sure of our facts or if we have not prepared sufficiently for a meeting or discussion. One useful approach would be to prepare for team meetings by having a clear picture of the issues that will be discussed and preparing your thoughts and ideas on the subject. There may be questions that you have for the team – another way of contributing – or suggestions on how to tackle some of the issues that may be discussed. If you are going to be presenting or commenting on your own objectives and achievements, prepare a brief list to remind you of the key points and refer to them during the meeting.

If you feel that your lack of contribution is more likely due to a lack of confidence, you may want to consider some training in assertiveness skills to help you express yourself confidently and with impact. Assertiveness is the ability to communicate your opinions, thoughts, needs, and feelings in a direct, honest, and appropriate manner and involves you taking your own position without having to offend others.

Taking a passive role in meetings may also be because you do not believe you have the right to assert yourself or feel comfortable doing so. It may be that you have been brought up to feel that your needs are not important enough to make a fuss about and that you should put others first. Alternatively, it may be that you feel that it is too difficult to be assertive or that it is much easier to let others make all the decisions. But, as seems to be the case now, in time you will begin to resent having others make the decisions and appear competent and intelligent while you sit and listen passively. Taken to an extreme, these feelings can lead to low self-esteem, anger and even depression. In the context of the workplace, it could also result on others losing respect for you or failing to see you as management material if you are unable to articulate your opinions and views.

If assertiveness training is not available to you, here are some suggestions for you to consider:

  • Practice getting your point across in meetings by summarizing ahead of time the key points that may be discussed.
  • Be prepared to ‘own’ your point of view by preparing evidence and facts to support your opinions and recommendations.
  • Change your mindset from worrying about making yourself look foolish to recognizing that you have earned your place in the company and are fully entitled to your point of view.
  • In meetings, create clarity in confusing situations by asking questions and taking notes of anything that needs further research.
  • Give yourself time to think, if asked a question, by asking for clarification of the question
  • Practice giving positive feedback to other people’s opinions while holding onto your views that may be quite different. Avoid using ‘but’ and try using statements such as ‘that’s an interesting point that x made. I think it’s also worth considering that ………’ or ‘That’s a good point. I would add to that by suggesting that…’
  • Stay factual in emotionally charged situations and prepare factual evidence rather than getting emotional in discussions.

Changing your approach will not come overnight and you need to keep practising these new skills and behaviours and apply them consistently. Changing a familiar pattern of behaviour – even when that pattern frustrates us – is never easy. Practise useful responses or assertive statements until they feel more natural. Changing your style will earn you the respect of your peers and you will see more clearly how you can influence the decisions, demands and expectations of your colleagues.

It will also take time for your colleagues to adjust to your new behaviour. Some people may feel threatened when you start to assert yourself and you should remember that this is their problem, not yours. Give yourself time and make any changes gradually. As your changed behaviour starts to feel more natural, you will begin to feel more confident and happy with yourself. You have made a conscious decision to change, so think positive and keep working at the changes you want to see.

If you would like some personalised coaching for business performance, contact us to learn about how we can help.

All the best!


Voted Candace Business Woman of the Year 1997, Helen Dupigny is a Director and co-founder of Working Plus, (www.working-plus.com) a Careers Management and Diversity consultancy and creator of the award-winning ‘Six Steps Career and Personal Development Programme’. A Sierra Leonean based in London, Helen is also the author of ‘Vicissitude’, a guide to making life and career changes.

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