Help! Me wanna talk good at meetings

Do you want to communicate better at work? Do you find that talking in meetings, or giving presentations, is awkward and stressful?

Perhaps your fear of being wrong is holding you back from learning what you want to learn.

We learn things by first asking a question and then by exploring the answer to that question. When we are in pursuit of that answer the more we can enjoy the uncertainty of the exploration the deeper and broader our learning will be.

Most of us have been rewarded for learning by “being right” by “locking the answer in quickly”. This has limited our tolerance for the uncertainty of learning something new. Because when something is new, the newness alone means that it will feel unfamiliar and often times ‘wrong’.

When we are focused on getting the answer right we will shut down our exploration of the uncomfortable, uncertain or unknown in order to feel certain. Because we believe certainty is safety.

When we do this we are limiting our potential to learn what we want to learn.

Learning should be about audaciously not knowing. If we can seek out circumstances where this kind of thinking is supported, then we can learn faster and more deeply by becoming comfortable (and safe) with uncertainty in the process of learning.

Or put more simply, it’s ok to be wrong when you learn something new.

If you are always right as you learn, then you are limiting your field of exploration and therefore are less likely to learn as much as you are capable of learning.

And mostly we have no idea that we are imposing these limitations on ourselves. So what does it look like? And how do we change it?

Sometimes people are frightened to ask this question, even of themselves, let alone say it out loud to someone else. There is no doubt the question is there. And we seem very comfortable with all the discomfort that comes along with not articulating the question we want answered.

In this landscape of behaviour we might see in ourselves things like an awkwardness around a topic, self loathing or disparaging our own abilities, a general negative self talk, a rejection of others and their concerns or questions about a thing. There is also hero worship – a desire to attach to someone else as the potential ‘god of’ or ‘ideal’ for us to emulate. There might be a general discomfort with our abilities or a complete avoidance of something we love.

More importantly we turn up. We book ourselves into a class or workshop or ask a friend for help or google something. We know that we want to know. We take ourselves to the edge of knowing. Sometimes we dive in deeply with our question and sometimes we hold ourselves back.

If learning begins with a question, then a fear of asking that question limits our ability to explore the question.


It could be many things.

Perhaps it is because to articulate the question clearly we have to look ourselves squarely in the eye and say ‘this, this is the thing I don’t know how to do. I am not perfect.’ Particularly when the thing we want to learn is something we believe we should already know, or that everyone else in the world already knows. To confess this lack of ‘knowing how’ can be confronting, almost disturbing. It takes a huge amount of certainty about oneself to confess that you are uncertain about something specific, that you don’t know and you want to know.

Also, when we learn something new, we are very likely to have moments where we will be wrong. Sometimes publicly. In the case of learning how to communicate with others the learning can only happen with others. There is only so much a mirror can tell us.

It is likely to be our response to those around us that needs to change. We need to learn about how we are responding to our listener, what we are doing that is getting in our way and experiment (which means try and fail and try and succeed and try and fail and try…) until we build enough experiences to know what we wanted to know in the first place.

Is it because the way we have learnt to learn has set us up to be passive? Our education system often puts a high value on being right, getting the answer, solving the problem, rather than the process of investigation and the uncertainty of trying the uncertain.

The learning I see and am interested in is people learning how to communicate and interact with the people around them. What are the kinds of questions that people want to learn about communicating?

  • What is my voice, how can I use it, rather than emulate the voice of others?
  • How can I be quick ‘on the spot’ when someone asks me a question?
  • How can I be influential when I communicate?

The answers are often not what we expect, that’s why it is learning, we find out something we didn’t know. If the answer was what we expected then we wouldn’t have needed to learn it.

For example, people who want to become more influential communicators often have a sense that they are not being listened to. They feel they need to develop more forceful ways of getting their point across.

But it is possible that what they need to learn is how to listen. When people feel like they have been heard they naturally become more receptive to listening to others. Often groups of people in discussion are all longing to be heard. The influential communicator in the group can sometimes be the person who listens, and then repeats back to people what they are hearing and then adds their perspective or insight upon what has been said.

So, one thing I have learnt when helping others to learn is to take the time to help them articulate their question.

To demonstrate that it is ok to be unclear and uncertain about this, but it is valuable to sit with that uncertainty, to explore it from many angles, until clarity emerges. That might look something like…

What would you like to learn?

– I want to be able to speak up in meetings with out feeling like an idiot.

Ok, what does feeling like an idiot look like/feel like?

– I go red, people are looking at me like I’m stupid, my voice is shaky, I feel tight in my shoulders. I just feel frozen.

When you speak in a meeting is it clear to you what you want to say?

– Almost.


– Yeah, it’s nearly formed but I feel like I have to answer ‘now’ and I sometimes don’t really have the pieces of what I want to say all connected. But I start talking just to make sure I don’t miss my opportunity to speak. And that’s when it falls apart.

Is it possible that if you had all of those pieces connected you would feel more confident in speaking up and you would have less of the challenges you described?

– Yes, that is very possible.

So, what does your ideal response in this situation?

– I’d like to be able to give a clear response to a tricky question when I’m under pressure.

Great, let’s answer that question. “How do I formulate a clear response to a complex question when I’m under pressure?”

– Right on.

Once this clarity emerges the pursuit becomes clear. It is easier to focus confidently on not knowing the answer to a clear question than to try and quickly lock in an answer to a ‘vague feeling’. If we spend our time ‘trying not to feel like an idiot’ we are not really in the pursuit of learning something new, we are just trying to stop something that feels uncomfortable.

When we get the question clear we can focus our effort on exploring that question, a much more productive way to learn.

Check out more stories in the category: Knowledge Bank