Monday, August 20, 2007

The "Tongue-Tied Factor"

Have you ever been in a meeting where you wanted to make a point or ask a question but for some reason couldn't? You might have been anxious, for example, about any of the following:
  • You're low man on the totem pole in your organization and are uncertain how your question or opinion will be received.

  • You're bored, your mind is drifting and you have no idea if the point you want to make has already been made.

  • The guy running the meeting is shooting down everyone's ideas.

  • The facts being discussed are complex, and you worry that requesting clarification might imply that you're out of your depth.

  • You're just plain shy.
I've met many otherwise smart, capable, engaged individuals who have confessed that, at least sometimes, they find themselves tongue-tied at meetings. In my estimation, the "tongue-tied factor" is a problem that's largely ignored by both meeting leaders and participants. Most folks are content to let a few acknowledged "experts" at the meeting dominate the discussion, but involving everyone is critical to getting the best thinking at any gathering of people responsible for coming up with new ideas or breakthrough solutions to a given problem.

What can discussion leaders do to neutralize the "tongue-tied factor"? First, they have to be aware of the syndrome and set an inviting tone by engaging everyone in the meeting, not just the most facile communicators. They may even need to overtly state: "We need your best thinking today. It doesn't matter whether you're are an intern or an EVP, everyone has a perspective that brings value to our discussion. If you have a question, ask it. Don't censor yourself or each other. There are no dumb questions, no dumb ideas. What you might think is a stupid comment can lead someone else to a creative thought. I want to hear from each and every one of you!"

Meeting leaders are responsible for helping to bring out the best in the participants. Compliment those who have contributed to the discussion. Describe how tweaking a particular idea might strengthen it. If someone asks a question that was answered earlier, rather than become impatient with the questioner, dig more deeply to get behind the question. Clearly something needs to be clarified!

People in a meeting who are afraid to speak up must work on freeing themselves from their fears. One way to build confidence is by learning as much as you can, in advance, about the topic under discussion. It will boost your courage, lengthen your attention span and the increase the likelihood that what you say will be both memorable and helpful in achieving the goals of the meeting. Surrender your ego. If you participate fully in the meeting, the potential rewards will always be greater than the risks, even if someone should react critically to one of your ideas or questions.

Neutralizing the "tongue-tied factor" is everybody's responsibility. It's a prerequisite for us to find the best, most creative solutions to our clients' - and our own company's - most pressing business problems.

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