Hello everyone. I’m Eamon Dubaissi, a Research Staff Developer with Prosper. Many people have fears of speaking to others, and it can be helpful to look more closely at these fears to see if you can address any of them. In this video, we will be looking at fears that you may have of speaking to fellow professionals, both within and beyond academia, and in different scenarios or environments.
As you watch the video, think about any fears that may resonate with you and ways in which you might challenge yourself to try new approaches. We will look at some of the common situations where people have barriers, many of which are psychological, when they are talking with other professionals. We will look in more detail at what some of these fears are. Finally, we will provide some tips on how you could begin to overcome them.
Fears of speaking with others can arise in many different situations, such as one-to-one conversations; networking events such as conferences; meetings, formal, informal, in person and online, and of course, informational interviews to understand more about careers. In these situations, there could be different scenarios.
You could be speaking to someone more senior to you, you could be speaking with someone with different expertise to you, or you could be speaking up in a more public setting with many people, which comes with different pressures. You could have difficulty with all of these or a combination. Some may be more difficult for you than others. This is your chance to reflect on which situations you struggle with the most. Even if this is not a problem for you, perhaps you could use some of the tips to improve your practice.
In many cases, the fears associated with the situations and scenarios have a common origin. It sometimes helps to name those fears so you can home in on what you might do to address them. Here are some of the most common fears. In any situation where you are speaking, being questioned, or putting an idea across, you may have a fear of looking foolish, embarrassing yourself, or being humiliated. You may feel like this even if it has never happened to you before.
Many of the other fears come from this inside fear in that you may embarrass yourself. Impostor syndrome is not so much a fear as a feeling, but it can prevent you from participating or pursuing something. You might say to yourself, ‘I’ll be found out if I put myself in certain situations,’ ‘People will realise that I don’t actually know what I’m doing.’ This is a common feeling and we touch upon it in greater detail elsewhere on the portal, so please check out those resources if it applies to you.
An inferiority complex, again, not a fear, but persistent thoughts, can also inhibit you. It’s similar to impostor syndrome but it’s not necessarily that you feel that you are no good, or that you don’t know what you’re doing, but that you feel that other people are more accomplished, capable or worthy than you. This can have certain benefits if it motivates you to compete or drives you on to improve.
This may have been important in our ancestral environment when survival was everything. However, when an inferiority complex goes too far and becomes all-consuming, getting stuck with those thoughts and feelings, it can diminish your confidence, leading you to withdraw socially and prevent you from engaging with others. Perhaps the fear of being judged or criticised can stop you from sharing your views or engaging in certain situations.
The very nature of academic discourse can be highly critical, for example receiving reviewers’ comments for your grants and publications or having to defend yourself and your work at conferences, interviews or even in your local environment. This may have an impact on your actions. You might have a fear of making a bad impression. You may feel that the stakes are too high for you to fully contribute or be yourself in certain situations.
Another fear is of consequences. In certain situations, there may be a power imbalance, so you are afraid to give your views, if you think they might not be well received or could have an impact on you later down the line. Other worries and fears might include the fears around the very act of speaking, do we actually have anything to say or ideas to contribute? Are you worried that you might stumble over words or be unable to find the right words in the right moment? Perhaps you’re not speaking in your native language and it’s more difficult to get over your point of view or create the right impression. This might stop you from contributing.
Maybe you fear the unknown, or it might be an unfamiliar environment, or you have a fear of failure, for example, when you are speaking in public. On the other side, you might have a fear of success, for example, you might be thinking, ‘What if this meeting leads to a new opportunity that I’m not ready for, or distracts me from what I’m currently doing?’ There are a lot of fears and worries, but remember that most people have these and you can work on overcoming them. We’ll now discuss some general ideas for addressing these fears.
A lot of what this comes down to is developing your self-confidence. Now, I don’t want to trivialise this and make out like it’s a simple fix. Developing your confidence takes time and can be a slow process. When you feel confident in yourself, you will naturally approach situations in a different frame of mind, more positive and less anxious.
Look back at times when you felt more confident and contrast that to times when you have been low on confidence. Perhaps the same or very similar situation looks very different. Even if you don’t feel so confident, you still need to remember your self-worth. You have achieved things. You have something to offer, or you wouldn’t be where you are. Approaching a conversation or engagement with a mindset that you can add value to others with what you know can help you to contribute. You might help others solve their problems or spark new ideas by speaking up. If it works for you, you could practise positive affirmations. Say to yourself, ‘I’ve got this,’ or ‘I’m a great communicator,’ or, ‘I have a lot to contribute.’
Also, try reframing negative self-talk, for example thoughts about embarrassing yourself. Try altering this talk to people are, on the whole, not malicious. They want to help, and even if you do stumble over words or appear shy, they will overlook this or not even notice. They may even have some of the same feelings to yourself.
Try to humanise your interactions in any conversations you have. Whoever they are, they are just humans too. Prepare and practise. Whether you’re going into a meeting where you know everyone or an unfamiliar situation with new people or organisations, you can prepare.
For example, ask yourself, what is the meeting about? Who are the people that are attending? Do you know anything about the organisation? This helps you to feel more confident and might be a source of inspiration for questions and comments. Related to this, depending on the situation, you could practise the first line of what you would say or maybe even an elevator pitch if you want to get over who you are and what you do succinctly.
Surround yourself with people who are positive and supportive. If you can, try to avoid those that are hypercritical, at least until your confidence improves. Understand and raise awareness of both your strengths and your weaknesses, but focus more on your strengths, and keep reminding yourself of what you are good at.
If you are more introverted as a person, embrace it. It doesn’t mean you have anything less to offer than your more extroverted colleagues. Introverts are often very curious, really listen to what is being said and prepare well. People respond better when it is clear that they are being listened to or when they are asked thought-provoking questions.
Consider your body language. It’s not always just about what you say, it’s how you actively listen with an open body language, smiling, nodding. These all create a good impression. Conversely, be aware of crossing your arms, tapping your feet, and your eye contact that’s either too much or too little. Some tips to get heard with your voice, tone and language include replacing ‘mm’ with short filler words and phrases like now, you see, however. You can use silences as a means to lean into any points that you make, and it also gives you time to take a breath.
Tell a story with your words. We have more on storytelling techniques elsewhere in the portal, so take a look. Understanding and adapting your own mindset is key. With a growth mindset, you are aiming for progress rather than perfection. You can improve how you engage with others over time.
Meanwhile, by embracing an entrepreneurial mindset, you might challenge yourself to take some sensible risks during situations where you’re engaging with others. Both of these mindsets are expanded on elsewhere in the portal.
When you are in conversations, deliberately look out for common ground, something you share or have a mutual interest in. This immediately builds rapport and helps the conversation to flow. If you’re prepared, you may even know something about them or their organisation that you can bring up.
Exercise self-compassion. If you’re nervous, recognise it, but don’t be hard on yourself. Treat yourself as you would a friend, and remember that everyone brings something unique and different to the table, including you. So now, we’ll look at the three different scenarios that you could encounter during any conversation or meeting, formal or informal.
We’ll start with speaking to those that are of different expertise, skillsets or specialisms to yourself. In research, this could be a one-to-one conversation or meeting with a collaborator, or an interdisciplinary meeting. You may feel apprehensive or intimidated, because they know more about a particular subject matter than yourself. Another time that you may feel this is when you’re making career decisions and you want to reach out to others for help, for example, when arranging informational interviews. By definition, you want to gain some information from them, perhaps about an area that you know very little about. This may make you feel a bit inadequate or uncomfortable. You may have some of those fears of looking foolish or being judged, or not knowing how to converse using the right language.
In terms of tips for speaking with professionals that have different expertise to your own, remember the key word is different. It’s not that you don’t have any expertise. Aim to present yourself as a fellow professional. You also have value. You may not know about the specifics of the area under discussion, but you do know a lot. It can help you if you prepare a powerful introduction.
Remember the importance of an opening line and perhaps an elevator pitch that is short and concise. If dealing with someone you don’t know, remember that first impressions are important. So be friendly, smile, use an energising tone of voice. If you’re nervous, try to turn these feelings into excitement, they are similar feelings, so they can see that you’re keen to talk to them.
Share why you called the meeting and why particularly them. It’s a chance for you to show that you know who they are and what they do. You could end the interaction with an action point, the next steps to keep momentum. In other situations like meetings where you’re not very knowledgeable about the subject area, you can still contribute. You can support others when they make their points, nodding, reiterating the point, or that you agree.
Showing active listening and asking questions can keep you involved and show that you’re interested. It also boosts your confidence. Also, if you are prepared enough to ask a few questions, this will help psychologically, enabling you to build rapport and relationships with others. In all of these situations where you feel like you are less knowledgeable than another person, or people, you are speaking to, keep in mind that you can also add value to them. Maybe not at that exact point in time, maybe sometime in the future. Perhaps you can resolve to help someone else using your own knowledge and expertise.
Hierarchy and seniority can be a barrier to engagement during conversations and more generally. As well as the fears of looking foolish and being judged, you may feel inferior. You may have worries over consequences of speaking up, or perhaps you are concerned about being disciplined or told off. Perhaps you have a fear of confrontation. When dealing with professionals in more senior positions, you can suffer with what is called authority anxiety, specifically around your one-to-one interactions with those in positions of authority. If you want to address these issues, it might help for you to reflect on why you feel like this in the first place.
Some factors may be external, for example, how you have seen a colleague being treated by the individual that you have difficulty speaking with, or perhaps rumours that they can be difficult. Other factors may be internal. They may be deep-rooted from your childhood in terms of respect for hierarchy, or a particular situation you found yourself in when you were young. It can help to simply know where these things to come from to then try to disassociate from the reality of the current situation.
Using positive affirmations, repeating them, and being consistent, can help you change your association with authority figures. Even visualising yourself speaking to them and what you would say can help. Again, humanise them.
Focus on the person, not the power. More often than not, they, too, have a boss, and are more concerned about them than any small mistake you might make. It may help to have a plan when you’re going into a conversation. Lead with your headline. Share your thought process, and ask for their advice. This can change the dynamic of the conversation. Be aware of your body language and try to avoid being defensive. If this is a particular concern for you, then practise. Find a leader that you know a little, you admire and respect, and ask them for a meeting. They’ll probably be flattered.
You also have the opportunity to think about how you can add value to them. Keep firmly in your mind that people in senior positions, like your manager, want things to run smoothly. By asking questions and speaking up, they can see that you share that view. The final scenario is speaking up in a public setting. So we’re not talking about presenting or giving a talk, as this is a different type of interaction.
Prosper has resources on presentational skills elsewhere on the portal, so check those out if you would like to improve in that area. Here, we’re talking about situations in meetings of several or more people, where you might be invited to speak up, ask questions or contribute in some way. You might know the feeling where you have a question or comment in your mind but you feel nervous to share it. So what could be some of the reasons why you feel this way? What are the root fears?
Like for the other scenarios, the fear of looking foolish may be a large contributor to you holding back from expressing your views. Saying to yourself things like, ‘This question is really stupid, I’m going to embarrass myself in front of everyone,’ this feeling could be heightened further in a situation with several people in the room rather than a one-to-one conversation. Another one might be self-preservation. You might feel that the risks of saying something wrong or out of turn, even by mistake, could be very personal and immediate, whereas the broader benefits to others or the organisation of speaking up is less clear.
On balance, you might not see it as a risk worth taking. There may also be a culture of myths about the work environment. You may think, ‘Keep your head down, I don’t want to be a target,’ or, ‘This happened to so-and-so when they spoke out.’ Perhaps you don’t see people at your seniority level contributing, so you feel like you shouldn’t either. There may be lots of assumptions being made, for example, that your boss would not like it if you said something or it might cause issues for somebody else, or create extra work for yourself. There are lots of benefits to speaking up at work.
It helps to build relationships with co-workers that are mutually beneficial. It gives topics for further discussion and debate. It shows you care about the topic, the person and the outcome. Also, do consider the context you are speaking up in and the audience you are speaking with. Weigh up the pros and cons. Ask yourself if it is helpful for people to hear from you at that particular time. The fear of speaking up in a meeting, for example, can be completely paralysing. When you want to say something, you rehearse it in your mind, but when you overthink it and don’t ask your question or make your comment, afterwards, you might be frustrated with yourself, making things worse in terms of your self-confidence.
Many high achievers in academia are also highly sensitive to criticism. This can cause them to stay silent, even when they are an asset to teams and workforces, because they tend to think very thoroughly about ideas and solutions to problems. So let’s have a look at some tips for how you could approach these public meeting scenarios in a different way. Like with the previous scenario, taking the time to reflect on why you fear these situations can help. Identifying areas of concern or ideas you have before the meeting and think about ways you could share it.
If the pros outweigh the cons, then it’s probably worth sharing. Bring notes into the meeting with you, or write notes during the meeting if that’s helpful. If you can, choose a format that is most comfortable for you to share your views. Why not ease yourself into the meeting? It might help arriving early and speaking to one or two co-workers to help you feel more comfortable. When you’re ready, make a commitment to yourself to say something when the opportunity arises, as early as possible in the meeting. If you don’t, anxiety can build up and put you off from doing it at all. It can help to surround yourself with supportive colleagues.
Remember, if you’re nervous before making a contribution, it might be because it’s something really important that could make the difference to someone else. Don’t focus on the number of contributions you make, focus on asking thought-provoking questions. You can follow up with ideas after the session, too. It shows you are listening and that you care.
When you first start contributing, it doesn’t need to be a lengthy input. Say something short and concise, just to help you feel comfortable in taking part. Perhaps take on some tasks for the next meeting so you are being active rather than passive, and over time, this will help to reduce any fears or anxieties you have about these engagements. Aim to shift your mindset.
For example, if you’re telling yourself, ‘My idea is incomplete, so I’ll keep it to myself,’ change it to, ‘It could be the inspiration that someone else needs, so I should share it.’ To summarise what we’ve touched upon in the video, if you find certain situations when you’re speaking with other professionals difficult, take time out to really think about why that is. What are your worries or fears? It is often the same root fears that underpin many of these situations. However, addressing these fears is not simple. It requires deliberate practice.
Consider setting yourself some goals around some of the situations and scenarios that are a particular challenge for yourself. Perhaps use some of the tips provided to frame these goals. The content in this video relates to many other Prosper resources. This includes those on building self-confidence and overcoming self-sabotage, as well as improving your communication skills. Other resources on switching your mindset from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset and developing an entrepreneurial mindset may also be useful in this context, so please check them out. I hope you’ve found the content in this video useful and you can take some of the tips forward with you. Thanks for watching.
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