How to Speak Up in Meetings

An executive coach’s insights on communication problems and solutions.

Business people group meeting shot from top widen view in office . Profession businesswomen, businessmen and office workers working in team conference with project planning document on meeting table .

As an executive coach and CEO, the most common topic I get from professionals is how to speak up in meetings at companies, startups, and nonprofit organizations. To provide you with tips for how to create a more healthy, profitable, and efficient workplace with open communication, let’s look at the problems and solutions for both leaders and employees.

Poor communication can become a critical performance issue that must be addressed immediately so innovations and ideas are heard. If leaders do not proactively address it, the problem can quickly snowball into disasters and even bankruptcy.

For example, Nokia, Enron, and Star Princess Cruise Lines all closed, and poor communications was a contributor, according to Harvard Business Review ( Other companies that failed due to innovation lags include Eastman Kodak, Polaroid, Blockbuster, and Borders, according to Investopedia ( If the executives had spoken up and/or listened to their employees’ ideas, they might still be open today.

The Problems

Are you a thermometer or are you a thermostat at work? Both devices deal with temperature, but their uses are different. A thermometer simply reflects the temperature, but a thermostat actually determines the temperature. A thermostat can be adjusted and suited to the needs of the room. The environment at work is an indicator of how much or how little people speak up. To encourage open communications, leaders need to both gauge the temperature as a thermometer when needed, and be the thermostat who listens and adjusts to their environment.

7 Common Reasons People Don’t Speak Up

Based on our talent and development company working with many Fortune 500 organizations, small business leaders, and entrepreneurs, we’ve observed that the most common reasons people choose to be silent in meetings include:

  1. Fear of embarrassment.
  2. Concern about how other person will react and respond.
  3. Trust has eroded, and you no longer feel safe sharing.
  4. You think others don’t want to hear what you have to say.
  5. No one asks for your ideas or opinions.
  6. You don’t know the BEST way to speak up.
  7. You don’t think anything will change, so why bother.

How Lack of Trust Silences the Room

Trust is key in creating an open environment where ideas and opinions are welcome. When trust has eroded, it creates an unhealthy environment. This unease usually happens over a period of time and is attributed to small infractions of trust-breaking incidents. Ineffective communication such as destructive feedback, dismissing someone’s point of view, or talking over others instead of actively listening can dissuade people from speaking up.

Different Perspectives Cause Miscommunication

Speaking up is not easy for everyone. We asked a group of introverts and extraverts to share what they wanted the other group to know about them to reduce miscommunication.

Here’s what the introverts shared about what they want extroverts to know about them:

  • We need alone time to process information shared in a group setting.
  • We tend to be more private and selective with whom we share information.
  • I am listening. I just don’t have the energy to engage in large group discussions.

Here’s what the extroverts shared about what they want introverts to know about them:

  • We don’t mean to talk over you; we are just vocal.
  • Talking out loud helps us think better.
  • Being in meetings and group settings still takes up energy for us.

The Solutions: How Leaders Can Encourage Open Communication

Leaders set the tone in the work environment. Much like the thermometer that reflects the temperature, leaders reflect the climate in the workplace. Leaders must adjust like a thermostat to create an environment to suit the needs of the people in the room. They can do that in three ways:

  1. Actively solicit ideas. Leaders must work harder to draw ideas out of employees. If employees are reluctant to share, there is a reason. The goal is not to embarrass or put anyone on the spot, but to allow employees to contribute in discussions.

To bring out ideas, use outcome-oriented-style questions. For example, “If we were to proceed with this new initiative, what do you think we need to make it successful?”

You also can use option-oriented-style questions. For example, “The new process will require us to use a new software. Which of the two software options do you think offers us the best value and is most cost effective?”

You also can use closed-ended questions that require a “yes” or “no” answer or open ended questions that allow for more probing.

  1. Attend to audience emotions. Monitor employee reactions. People say a lot without saying anything at all. Body language and facial expressions are the way most of us communicate. If you have introverts on your team, they may not be as vocal as others, so watching their non-verbal reactions is just as important as verbal ones. When a conversation is heated, tense, or uncomfortable, people can shut down. If you notice a shift in the room, evaluate what’s going on. You may find that the best solution is to proceed. Other times, you may find the best way forward is to pause the conversation and revisit it when emotions are not as high.
  2. Avoid attacking a person’s character. Eroded trust can cause a person to refrain from speaking up. Trust can be eroded when people feel attacked, dismissed, overlooked, talked over, misunderstood, labeled, belittled, or made fun of, particularly if they share a different point of view from the rest of the group. Attacking a person’s idea and placing a negative label on that idea such as “dumb” also can cause a person to immediately shut down.

The unintended consequence of attacking a person’s idea or opinion is eroded trust. When trust is present, people can express themselves freely without the fear of judgement. Leaders should encourage participation by openly and genuinely asking for input. Share the floor and engage in a round-robin discussion where everyone has an opportunity to contribute to the discussion. Offer other methods for contributing ideas such as a written contribution or in a one-on-one setting instead of a group setting.

How Employees Can Actively Participate in Meetings

  1. Offer at least one question/idea in every meeting. Employees should make a goal to contribute in meetings. Write down thoughts and questions in advance of a meeting. This way, the pressure to think of something on the spot is removed. When offering an idea, clarify your intentions. State the idea clearly and concisely using short sentences and strong verbs. State your position on an issue with your WHY for recommending it. Choose assertive words to convey your point.
  2. Offer facts and feelings in conversation starters. People often make decisions based on one of two things: fact or feeling. Incorporate both when offering an idea or solutions using conversation starters such as:
  • Benefits: “I’d like to offer a different perspective that saves us money and increases efficiency.”
  • Facts: “Based on a recent study, I’d like to offer a different approach to resolving this matter that has proven effective in improving production.”
  • Feelings: “As an individual contributor here at the company working in the xx department, I’d like to share some concerns that may arise as a result of this new change and also offer two solutions.”
  1. Be prepared for meetings. A good meeting planner will provide an agenda in advance of a meeting. Use the agenda to craft questions and/or to conduct research to feel more comfortable discussing the talking points. A common fear of speaking up is that others don’t want to hear what you have to say and a fear of embarrassment. Confront those fears by amping up your preparation. Ask yourself, Who do I need to talk to as research on this topic? What information would be helpful to share with the group? What new trends support these talking points? Know your audience and what they expect. If you are meeting with your boss or other leaders, pinpoint what is most important to them. Bring that into the discussion through questions and ideas.

Everyone plays a critical role in an organization, and healthy communication can make or break their success. Leaders, employees, entrepreneurs, volunteers, and board members all need to proactively use these new tools to speak up more in meetings.

Tiana Sanchez
Tiana Sanchez is CEO and founder of TSI LLC (Tiana Sanchez International) talent and development company, a #1 bestselling author, executive coach, corporate trainer, keynote speaker, and host of Like a REAL Boss podcast. Sanchez got her career start at age 16 with 90 percent female-led national franchise organization Hot Dog on a Stick, became a manager at 17, was promoted to regional manager, and welcomed the company as her first consulting client. Sanchez’s public and private-sector corporate training and development client list includes Sony Pictures, BMW, Mercedes Benz, and California State University Long Beach. She is the author of two books: “Undefeatable” and “F’D Up – The UPside of Failure.”