Speaking up at work: 4 tips to make your voice heard

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Do you often feel like you’re a ghost at office meetings? Have there been times when you wanted to say something but stayed quiet because you were 1) intimidated; 2) worried that you may not have the right idea, or 3) not sure about your English?

For us, newcomers, speaking up at work can be a challenge. Not only are we struggling with the language but also with adapting to a new environment where the culture and norms are different from what we’re used to. Often times, our fear of making a bad first impression or being perceived as incompetent outweighs our desire to contribute to a conversation, so we often defer to others and wait to be asked to say something.

Why is speaking up so important?

In the Canadian workplace, speaking up is part of establishing your credibility. It is also part of building leadership. While it is important to listen and observe while you’re new, being silent most of the time can work against you. You may have tons of expertise but your colleagues cannot guess what is on your mind. This is why you must speak up and participate. Be vocal about your suggestions, views and concerns, especially if the topic is your area of expertise. This is the way to become visible and eventually start building a positive reputation in the workplace.

Here are ways to help you start speaking up at work:

  1. Do your homework

    Before attending a meeting, read the agenda carefully. Check if there are items where you can provide a meaningful contribution. This may require research. Read up on current projects (or the projects mentioned in the agenda) and don’t go to the meeting unprepared. As a newbie, you may not be able to have a complete grasp of everything yet, but that’s a great opportunity to ask relevant questions. Don’t think you’re too new to have a say in things. You were hired to the position for a reason.

  2. Create your opportunity

    Make opportunities to speak up. You can:

    • Ask a question – Asking questions is expected when you’re a new employee so don’t be scared to ask. Being inquisitive is also the mark of someone who wants to get the job done right the first time. But two things: always make sure that your questions are relevant and don’t waste your coworkers’ time by asking questions that can be answered by common sense. Another thing to remember is to note down the answers. It saves you from the embarrassment of asking again.
    • Seek clarification – This is mainly repeating some points to make sure that you got them correctly. Many newcomers don’t do this for fear of looking incompetent. Seeking clarification is a great way to avoid misunderstandings and wasting precious time on mistakes. This can be especially helpful for your boss because it’s another way to see if you’re on the same page.
    • Provide feedback – Let your manager know every now and then how things are working out. Put in more detail beyond “I’m doing well, thanks”. Provide a few details about how you are progressing and ask a few questions. If you are disagreeing or providing negative feedback on something, always be tactful. Trying using the “feedback sandwich” technique. This involves saying a compliment, then the critique, then closing with another compliment. For example: “I think the new process for X is good. It’s easy and familiar. But maybe we can explore using X to make production simpler. It can complement your already efficient system.”
    • Make a suggestion – Bring new ideas and solutions to the table. That’s what you’re there for. Have the initiative to think of and offering good suggestions. But be careful about saying something negative (even if it is constructive criticism) or suggesting new ways of doing established things when you are a newbie. You can inadvertently offend someone. It’s great to have big, new ideas but perhaps you can test drive your suggestions with your co-worker or supervisor first before sharing it with a larger audience. Keep in mind that your suggestions may not be picked up every time. Also, not everyone will agree with your suggestion or be pleased with what you say. That’s ok. Just keep trying.
  3. Delivery matters

    Things to remember when:

    • You’re insecure about your English:
      Speak clearly and at the right pace. Don’t worry about your grammar or accent. Chances are, it is only you who notices these lapses. Also, most people are used to accents in Manitoba. If you have a heavy accent, speak slowly to make your words understood. When talking, be brief and concise. Go straight to the point.
    • You’re afraid you might be saying the wrong thing:
      Try anyway! The worst that can happen is that someone will correct you. In a healthy work environment, most people will be diplomatic in pointing out your mistake to avoid embarrassing you. Either way, take corrections in stride and don’t get discouraged. Consider it as a learning experience. It’s all part of integrating into the workplace. And if you’re right, imagine how good you will feel afterwards! Don’t you think it’s worth the risk?
    • You get anxious before speaking:
      Anxiety is normal. Everybody feels it. The best way to overcome anxiety is to practice – a lot. Take a deep breath before speaking. You will get used to it in no time.

    Go straight to the point but whatever you want to say, remember to always be tactful. Respect others and put their feelings first. Let’s say you disagree with a co-worker’s solution to a problem that is in your area of expertise. Should you say, “No, you are wrong” outright? Imagine how your co-worker would feel if you were in their place! It is a good policy to always speak tactfully and respectfully. Most Canadians would ask a question instead of declaring that the other person is wrong (example: “Sorry, but can you please tell me how you arrived at (this answer)?”). Also, provide your co-worker a chance to explain or gracefully accept if they are indeed wrong.

  4. Continue learning English

    Often times, newcomers stop learning English once they get a job. Many think that daily interactions would be enough to help increase proficiency in the language. Others just don’t have time to learn. The sad truth is that learning English on the job may not be enough. It is through consistent and conscious effort that we continuously improve. Ask your HR department if the organization offers in-house language training. There may be ways that your workplace can arrange for you to allocate some time for it. In your spare time, consider these 10 easy ways to improve your English that you can incorporate in your daily life. Or maybe join free conversation circles once a week. Choose whatever type of learning that suits you. The most important thing is to never stop learning.

Sources: The 3-word strategy that’ll give you the confidence to speak up at work, Sara Mccord, The Muse; Working in the Canadian workplace – A Handbook for newcomers to Canada, Paul A. Holmes; and How to get over your fear of speaking up at work, Jon Simmons, Monster. Retrieved October 17, 2018.

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