Mouth Open Should Be Shut: My challenges with openly contributing to meetings and the fear of oversharing

It’s 7:30 on a Tuesday night, and I’ve just come off a Clinical Senate meeting. It’s late and I’m tired and I’m having quite the shame spiral. Let me explain why. I talked. Sounds a bit silly when you write it down, but it’s the truth. The problem is that no one else did very much, and I’m never sure that I either have the right to speak or that I make any sense when I do. This means whenever I go to these things and contribute, I never really know whether my actual job in the room is really to be seen and not heard. As a person, I know I should talk less and listen more, and so when I do speak I have a tendency to destroy myself with guilt when it’s over. So, as I sit here writing this on the tube on the way home it seems to be a good time to work through some of these processes ahead of a week full of, what will likely be, situations that could result in the same self recrimination.

Trained into a way of thinking

I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up the ‘be seen and not heard’ response was pretty much embedded. Good girls, good children do not make waves or draw attention to themselves. We are often trained into a certain way of thinking about how our presence in those rooms should be. As we become more senior or spend increasing amounts of time in meeting rooms, especially in meeting rooms where we don’t really have relationships with people, this can cause a certain amount of cognitive conflict. Our presence in the room is to contribute, but we don’t necessarily understand the unwritten rules associated with that contribution. How will we be judged? What measures will be used to benchmark our contribution? Will we be judged if we speak too much or too little? Who are the key decision makers in the room? In the absence of this knowledge, at least in my case, I default back to those childhood rules. Thus uncertainty of the rules can lead to me starting to shame spiral when the meeting is over. I don’t find this such an issue when I’ve developed relationships with the people in the meeting, or when I better understand the relationships and my role. I also find it less of an issue during in person meetings, it may just be that it’s easier to read some of the body language in the space when face to face. When I leave the room, and I feel like I do tonight, I try to tell myself to focus on looking forward to what I can contribute rather than looking back to behaviours of the past, but sometimes that is harder than it should be.

My mind is always so full of stuff

Where do some of these insecurities come from? I am horribly aware of the fact that I talk too much, that I talk over people and can be seen to not be paying attention or really listening. There are a couple of underlying reasons for this. The first is that my hearing isn’t that great, as I spend about 6 months of the year with varying levels of ear infection. This means that I spend quite a lot of the time completing sections of dialogue based on social cues, lip reading or extrapolation. The downside to this is that I often finish off sections of dialogue or meaning from other people before they finish fully articulating, or I think they have finished when they have only actually paused for emphasis or breath. This can mean that I end up responding before other peoples thoughts are truly finished. I really don’t mean it as rude, it drives my husband crazy, and most of the time I don’t even realise I’ve done it. Because I have an awareness of how rude this is, even if without intent, I therefore feel a lot of guilt in response – especially if it’s pointed out to me.

The second thing is that I’m not very good at doing one thing at a time, even in my head. I tend to have a LOT of thoughts flying around my mind at any one time. Sometimes that means I feel the need to get thoughts out of brain before I lose track and move onto the next thing. There are lots of things that I’m trying to do to get better about this, active note taking for example so that I don’t fear losing my train of thought. I do find that this is even harder these days though as I’m not only having multiple trains of thought at the same time, but I’m also trying to manage multiple work demands at the same time. This means my focus on being a good listening is often split between other tasks which I know is none ideal. I’m a work in progress. One of the things that enables me to be a success is that I can manage to spin a lot of plates, the down side to that is that I’m actually very poor at doing one thing at a time, and sometimes that makes me a less good listener than I’d like. Knowing these things about myself means that I tend to run action replays of all of the moments in meetings when I have succeeded less well and struggle, initially at least, to take the learning from the moments rather than the guilt.

Owning the invite

One of the things I try to remember when I feel like this is that I was invited into the room. For the Clinical Senate I had to go through an application and interview process to even be there. I was invited into the room because, no matter how I feel in the moment, someone felt like I had something to contribute otherwise I wouldn’t have been asked. The thing I have to remind myself is that there is no point in being in the room if you don’t participate, otherwise your chair could be better used by someone else. In many ways it’s not for you (or in this case me) to question your purpose. If I am no longer required, if I don’t perform up to expectations, if I don’t adhere to those unwritten rules, then there are people who can rescind that invite and mean I’m no longer included. This may be something that subconsciously adds to my fear, as the humiliation would sting, but it also something that has never (knowingly) happened to me and so I need to put it into that context.

Part of the other scenario where I really feel the pressure is when I’m in a multidisciplinary space, especially one that is not frequently occupied by Healthcare Scientists/women/Clinical Academics. I feel the pressure to represent all of those groups well and to not let others down. What I don’t want is for the others around the table to engage less with these super important groups because they’ve extrapolated from any failures of mine in the room, and thus impact wider engagement. At the same point I am a proud member of all those those less prominent groups and I have the opportunity to raise awareness and have been given a voice. It would therefore be a waste to get in my own way and not use it. This is the part where, if you put your rationale brain on, you realise that no one is likely to discredit a whole group because you talk over someone or asked a stupid question in a meeting, perspective and understanding that you are probably just not that important can sometimes help.

Who the hell am I

My imposter syndrome tends to kick in prior to me being in the room, I’m frequently to be found hiding in toilets ahead of face to face meetings psyching myself up. I tend to hit the shame spiral hard after I leave the room. When I’m in the room however I tend to be OK and pretty task focussed. Sometimes I’m so focussed on the intellectual question or balancing the evidence that I have been called ‘The Destroyer’ by a dear academic colleague – I’m hoping in jest, but from the look of my PhD students faces perhaps not entirely. I think this means that in the moment I can mostly hold my own, whoever else is the room. Once I’m in the room I worry less about how I got there, than what the discussion is before me. It also means that I sometimes ask the questions that people may not want me to ask, because I’m interested in understanding more and getting the answers. Most of the time I hope my curiosity comes across as just that, I am aware that when I’m puzzling over thoughts in my mind or putting pieces together I can have a face that looks intimidating rather than welcoming. Perhaps the scientific version of resting bitch face? I can therefore come over as an interrogator rather than a supportive enquirer which may impact how people respond to the query.

One of the other reasons I ask a lot of questions is that I spend a lot of time in mixed discipline, mixed professional rooms. I therefore have to be OK with asking the stupid question as I may not have the understanding of the others around the table. In these meetings people often use the same words. but in different contexts. I’ve learnt therefore that I have to be brave and ask the questions so that I understand enough to be able to contribute. I also sometimes feel that I have to contribute in order to justify the fact that I’m there, something that I know is not necessarily needed and may be driven by a need to prove that I should be there. Contributions however shouldn’t be driven by uncertainty about worth but linked to gaining clarity around task, in order to move things forward. Again, I’m working on it.

The importance of connection

The other thing, for me, about feeling uncertain and off kilter is that I will often try to deal with this by forming connections. As I said earlier, feeling more connected with the others in the room can reduce feelings of risk as you can get feedback and will be better placed to understand the unwritten rules. The problem with this is that I have a habit of oversharing when trying to connect. This probably surprises none of you, I’ve been writing a blog that lays bare my soul for over 2 years now after all. The other times that I tend to over share is when I read cues that make me think that the other person is not gelling with me, be that a different value set or just not pleased with what I have to say. This is a dangerous game, in searching for that connection, that shared experience, or shared journey, you can open yourself up to all kinds of responses and take a big risk in terms of your emotional wellbeing. Interestingly, when I’m in the moment and responding to the body language, or signals, of others I often feel comfortable. Again, it’s when I walk away from the moment and lose that reinforcement of connection that the self doubt creeps in and the action replays start.

Always the weird one

Let’s be honest. On top of everything else, my brain is a bit weird. I’ve gradually become aware over the years that I just see the world in a slightly odd way and therefore have a tendency to think a bit differently. This means that the comments and questions that strike me listening to a room full of people can come off as a little strange or out there when I vocalise them. It feels like there are two main responses to this, depending on the room. You have rooms where those who hear my oddness respond with equal curiosity and I get to walk out of the room feeling like I’ve made a difference. There are other rooms are not always so receptive to being engaged in what can be seen as a distracting train of thought. In these rooms it means I have a tendency to ask questions and see a sea of slightly baffled faces and then feel bad for asking the question or making the point. The response to such a moments is often to dismiss the comment actively by minimising it, or passively by just not acknowledging it happened. These are the meetings that I struggle most with. I feel like I’m there because I can contribute, because I think differently or have a different set of experiences, but that contribution is unacknowledged. I also think that despite this I need to continue to input and find my voice, even if it is hard, as if I’m not going to I should give up my space to someone else who might be braver in the moment. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I find it hard however.

Putting it out there

The long and short of these reflections is that, like so many things, you have to take a risk in order to achieve. You have to be in the room and take the risk of being seen in order to create change. Putting yourself out there by being in spaces that you feel less comfortable in, where you may not know the people or the rules well, opens you up to conflict and criticism. It also means that you have to face the fact that you are not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, rather than living in the fluffy land of denial (I rather like it there BTW). You have to have strategies that will allow you to deal with the consequences of that risk, or to allow you to come to terms with that the fact that some people will just not like/gel with you. We have to walk the walk, and know that sometimes disagreements and being in rooms with people who are not like us is required for us to get the best outcomes. Sometimes, it is only by being uncomfortable that we can find clarity of thought and/or purpose.

If life becomes too much it is always possible to remove yourself from the space, from the place, people or meeting that you are struggling to deal with. The thing is that by doing that you may not achieve all you could achieve, you may not grow and learn the most you can as a person. It’s always worth coming back to why you are in the room to start with. I’m not saying you can never walk away, just that walking away from something purely because it feels uncomfortable may not always be serving you or the room in the best way. I’m sure there are healthier ways of doing this than shame spiralling and writing a blog to process the thoughts that it triggers, but I don’t have any easy answers. What I do have is the faith that if you are invited into the room it’s because you have something to offer that room which is needed, and that by being honest about the challenges that we sometimes face maybe we can remove some of that uncertainty/risk that makes the room feel like it’s not for people like us.

All opinions on this blog are my own

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