Q: I want to challenge myself to be less deferential in my work style. I know my ideas are good, yet I come off as tentative. The higher the position of the person I’m meeting, the more I ramble and sound unsure. What can I do? —Amber, 33, analyst
A: This pattern calls for both inner and outer work to resolve. On the inner side, how strong is your confidence? Really. While you say you know your ideas are good, do you really own them deeply? When they are challenged, do you stand up for them or immediately concede?
There are other aspects of confidence. For example, do you really feel like you belong in the room? I wonder about this especially since you mention lower confidence around higher-ups. This isn’t unusual, as it can be intimidating, but it’s something to work on.
Take some time to do some confidence building. Use your self-knowledge to write down a list of your strengths. Consider both professional skills and interpersonal characteristics.
Add to this list with feedback from others. Look at old performance reviews, comments you’ve received from friends and colleagues, and any other sources you may have. Create a “personal glory” file to keep these nice things on hand for the future, or for when you feel the need for reinforcement.
Your inner assurance can be further strengthened by some behavioral changes.
Check your vocal mannerisms. Particularly note if you have an upward inflection in your voice after sentences. Save that for questions, and practice having your declarative statements end on a firm note. Make sure your pacing is calm; speeding through your sentences shouts nerves.
Look at your body language. Posture matters, and slumping, looking down or avoiding eye contact can signal low self-confidence.
You may tend to sound less assured if you’re taken by surprise. To avoid this, prepare thoroughly for your meetings. Of course you’ll want to be ready on topics related to the agenda. But go beyond that in your preparation.
If you’re leading the meeting or a specific topic, anticipate questions that may come up and have responses thought through. You’ll be more fluid in your reply if you’ve done a little initial thinking.
Also look at the invitee list. People are famous for sidebar conversations on other topics, so if you’re working with someone on another project, say, be ready if they should ask.
It’s always a good idea to have a proverbial “elevator speech” about what you’re working on. Then, if you happen to be in a situation with a senior leader who is making conversation about your role, you’re ready.
Involve others in the discussion. You can transition in a variety of ways, getting input from someone who hasn’t spoken up yet, or recapping feedback from a colleague: “Ann, you were saying to me the other day … ” This outward focus shows openness, awareness of others and leadership skill.
Notice tension in your body and consciously relax. Unhunch your shoulders or unclench your fists. Take a few deep breaths and let the oxygen refresh you. Your mind and body will benefit.
Finally, remember you’re in your role because of your skills and contributions, and let your confidence grow.