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

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Do you 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:

  • intimidated
  • worried that you may not have the right idea or
  • not sure about your English?

Speaking up at work can be a challenge especially for newcomers. Most of us are still learning the language while figuring out the norms in the workplace. Sometimes, the fear of making a bad first impression or being seen as incompetent outweighs the desire to contribute to the conversation. Newcomers defer to others or wait to be asked before speaking.

Why is speaking up so important?

Speaking up is part of establishing credibility in the Canadian workplace. It is also a way to show leadership. While it is important to listen and observe while you’re new, being silent most of the time can work against you. You are expected to provide ideas and suggestions especially if it is within your area of expertise. While you may have tons of knowledge and experience in the field, your colleagues will not know this unless you speak up and participate. This is the best way to become visible and eventually start building a positive reputation in the workplace.

Here are some ways to help you:

  1. Do your homework

    Read the agenda carefully before attending a meeting. See if you can contribute to any item on the list. Don’t go to the meeting unprepared. As a newbie, you may not be able to have a complete grasp of everything yet, but it’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 – This is expected when you’re a new employee. Being inquisitive is also the mark of someone who wants to get the job done right the first time. Make sure that your questions are relevant and don’t waste your coworkers’ time by asking questions that can be easily answered through a quick search. Another thing to remember is to note down important points. This will save you from the embarrassment of asking again.
    • Seek clarification – Ask or repeat some points to make sure that you got them correctly. Many newcomers don’t do this for fear of sounding incompetent. Seeking clarification is a great way to avoid misunderstandings and wasting precious time on mistakes. This is also helpful to your boss because both of you will find out if you’re on the same page. You can say: “Just to summarize (or to be clear), you want me to do ____ and _____” or “What I’m hearing is that you need _______, is this correct?”
    • Provide feedback – Let your manager know how things are working out. Give periodic reports about your progress and ask a few questions. When asked for feedback, be tactful when disagreeing or providing negative feedback. Use the “feedback sandwich” technique when appropriate. This involves delivering constructive criticism wedged between two positive comments. For example: “I think the new process for project X is good. It’s easy and familiar. But maybe we can explore using Y to make production simpler. It can complement your already efficient system.”
    • Make suggestions – Bring new ideas and solutions to the table. But take note of the following:
      • Having big, bold ideas is great. But consider testing your big idea with your supervisor or co-workers first before sharing it with a larger audience. Consulting others can help you refine your idea. It can also boost your team’s spirit because you are involving them in the process.
      • Be tactful when suggesting new ways of doing things when you’re a new employee. You may sound like a know-it-all and offend some co-workers, particularly those who instituted whatever you wish to change. Emphasize the benefits of adopting your suggestion instead of pointing out why the old way was not good or efficient.
      • Don’t feel bad when your suggestion is rejected. Be open to objections and think of it as a learning experience. 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 too much about your grammar or pronunciation. You’re the only one who probably notices your mistakes. If you have a thick accent, speak slowly so you’ll be understood. Be brief and concise when speaking. Go straight to the point.
    • You’re afraid you might say the wrong thing:
      Try anyway! The worst that can happen is that someone will correct you. In a healthy work environment, people will be diplomatic when pointing out your mistake to avoid embarrassing you. Either way, take corrections in stride and don’t get discouraged. It’s all part of integrating into the workplace.
    • You get anxious before speaking:
      Anxiety is normal. The best way to overcome this 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 remember to be tactful. Respect others and put their feelings first. Most Canadians would ask a question instead of saying that the other person is wrong (for example: “Sorry, but can you please tell me how you arrived at (this answer)?”). Always give your co-worker a chance to explain or gracefully accept if they are indeed wrong. A little bit of empathy goes a long way.

  4. Continue learning English

    Often times, newcomers stop learning English once they get a job. They think that daily interactions would be enough to increase their proficiency, while others don’t have time for courses. 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 classes and allow you to allocate some time for it. In your spare time, consider these 10 easy ways to improve your English or maybe join free conversation circles once a week. The most important thing is to never stop learning.

Article updated October 10, 2022.
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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