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I’m tongue-tied at work. How can I learn to speak more freely?

THE QUESTION

I'd like some guidance on how to speak more confidently and assertively so I can better express my views to colleagues and managers. I have difficulty bringing up issues with subordinates and line managers, and I feel this is holding me back. I don't have a problem speaking with them socially, but in the workplace there is some sort of fear that is preventing me from speaking freely. Any advice would be appreciated.

THE ANSWER

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First, try to clarify what is holding you back from speaking up. What fears are keeping you from expressing yourself clearly and confidently in the workplace? I note that you do not have any difficulty speaking confidently with these people when you are outside the workplace. Some common fears that keep people from speaking up are the fear of making a mistake or being wrong, a fear of conflict, a fear of looking foolish, a fear of not being able to express oneself clearly, a fear of being judged harshly by others, and so on.

Remember that the fear of public speaking is extremely common, with some people ranking it higher than their fear of death. So you are definitely not alone.

Take note of your physical responses when you have to speak up in the workplace. Your palms may start sweating. Your heart may race. Your stomach may feel as if it is being twisted into knots. Your breathing will likely become more shallow and rapid. Your sympathetic nervous system kicks in and moves you into survival mode. Your body produces more of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenalin.

You will, most likely, never become an extrovert. However, you can learn to become more comfortable in speaking up at work or in public. The first step is to remember to breathe deeply when you feel yourself becoming stressed. Pause and take three to five deep breaths where you expand your abdomen and your diaphragm. Try this prior to going into a meeting or picking up the phone or going on a video-conference call. Notice the difference in your ability to calm yourself and speak more easily.

Next, identify and manage the fears and self-criticism that may pop into your thoughts. Simply name the fear and practise saying what is on your mind as opposed to criticizing yourself. The more you practise this, the easier it will become.

You may want to consider joining a Toastmasters International club, where you can practise giving planned and spontaneous talks with more confidence and ease. Simply Google Toastmasters, a worldwide organization that helps its members to improve their public-speaking skills, to find the chapter closest to you.

Another technique that many athletes use to calm themselves and improve their performance is called active visualization. You can practise this by visualizing speaking confidently at work and in meetings with your boss, colleagues and staff.

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You may want to try writing or jotting down your thoughts and the points you would like to make prior to speaking to colleagues or making a presentation. This often helps people to collect their thoughts.

The more your practise these techniques, the more comfortable you will become having conversations and getting your points across clearly and confidently with your boss, colleagues and staff.

Bruce Sandy is principal of www.brucesandy.com and Pathfinder Coaching & Consulting.

Have a question about careers, labour law or management? Send it to our panel of experts: careerquestion@globeandmail.com Your name and address will be kept confidential.

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