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Editorial
The Best Thing to Say When You Feel Totally Unprepared in a Meeting
Jacob Lund / Adobe Stock
Melody Wilding
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Picture this: You’re in an important meeting with senior leadership. The CEO is sharing the firm’s strategic plan, including how the company will “leverage big data to gain visibility into market opportunities producing measurable ROI”.

Um…what?

You do a quick scan around the conference room. Heads nod in agreement as the CEO concludes. Self-doubt kicks in. “Am I the only one who has no idea what she just said?” Even though you’re totally confused, you don’t ask questions for fear of losing face.

Later while grabbing coffee, a colleague divulges that they were lost amidst the jargon. Yet they didn’t speak up. Though you shared the same opinion, you both stayed quiet.

Is this simply irony–or is something more at play?

This phenomenon is called pluralistic ignorance. It describes a situation in which a majority of people in a group privately disagree with an idea, while incorrectly assuming others in the group accept it. Instead of standing up for our beliefs, we go along with what the group seems to favor.

Pluralistic ignorance is surprisingly common in the workplace–from the boardroom to how we evaluate our personal success. It even affects attitudes towards flex-work policies and the gender wage gap.

Typically, you’re not the only one who feels confused or who wishes they could speak up. It’s time to do away with the myth that asking questions makes you look dumb. While there may be no such thing as a stupid question (as the old saying goes), there is such a thing as a great question.

If you’ve been holding back and not speaking up on account of the pluralistic ignorance effect, it’ll pay to invest time in becoming a master at Socratic questioningTry this smart, strategic way of expressing yourself at the right time, assertively and with tact.

This includes clarifying questions, such as:

  • What do you mean by…?
  • Could you put that another way?
  • If I heard you correctly, what you’re saying is…?

And probing questions, such as:

  • What would be an example of…?
  • How did you decide…?
  • Could you expand upon that point further?

There’s definitely a deep-seated fear of speaking up in a group, so don’t beat yourself up for feeling tentative about it. It’s normal to be worried you’ll embarrass yourself, feel rejected or lose people’s respect. But it’s a good exercise in self-assuredness to get used to believing in yourself enough to know that speaking up won't make you look stupid or foolish. In fact, you'll look proactive and engaged in the conversation. 

On the other hand, if you are the one presenting and you feel caught off guard by someone's question, you can use phrases like: 

  • Let me get back to you about that.
  • Great question. What’s your sense of the situation?
  • Thanks for the feedback. Give me some time to digest what I’ve heard.”

If it makes it easier to tiptoe into this new territory, start out by testing your new skills in small groups or one-on-one situations before transitioning to speaking up in high-stakes situations like client meetings.

 --

Melody Wilding is a coach and licensed social worker who helps ambitious high-achievers manage the emotional aspects of having a successful career. Her clients include CEOs and C-level executives at top Fortune 500 companies such as Google and HP, as well as media personalities, startup founders, and entrepreneurs across industries. She also teaches Human Behavior at Hunter College in NYC. Get free tools to grow your career confidence at melodywilding.com

A version of this article originally appeared on Forbes.

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