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I attend meetings. A lot. But despite years of experience and an appearance of calm and control, I still feel anxiety in meetings.
The way we conduct business won’t change, and you can’t ignore your emotions (not sustainably, anyway….).
So, years ago, I decided to channel that anxiety and use it to help me grow.
Here are 8 useful tips to regain control and manage anxiety in meetings, no matter how important, no matter your role, and no matter the attendees.
Understand your role
Have you ever been to a meeting with no clear understanding of why you were invited in the first place? Perhaps the agenda isn’t clear, or the topic has nothing to do with your work, or you don’t know any of the attendants.
Before you head into that meeting, ask yourself:
what is expected of me?
This idea of expectation is important. Generally, if you are invited, someone wants you to be there. It’s common sense but key to start managing expectations.
Are you a decision maker? Will you bring expertise on a certain area or function? Will you communicate the key points of the meeting back to your team? Or are you simply there to be informed?
I find it useful to have an idea of what these expectations are to deal with anxiety in meetings. It helps me prepare. I have learnt this the hard way, once attending a senior management meeting in my junior years and expecting to “learn and be quiet”, only to be asked, on the spot, to explain complicated changes in the budget. It did not go well.
Know the people
I often get invited to meetings with people I don’t know. Most of the time, it is part of a working group or a project meeting managed by someone else. Once I understand what my contribution to the meeting might be, I start researching the attendants, who they are, who they represent and what their roles might be in that meeting.
Reducing uncertainty will help you manage anxiety and stress.
A few ways to learn about attendants in a meeting:
- Ask your colleagues – nothing like good old word-of-mouth (but mind the gossips)
- Check your company’s directory (Outlook, intranet, etc…) – if they work for the same organisation, you might be able to see who they are, where they fit in the org chart.
- LinkedIn – great way to learn about someone’s experience
- Browse the web – what event have they been to or spoken at? Have they written articles? Do they have a website?….
These meetings are great opportunities to meet inspiring people whom you might develop professional relationships with.
Have one or two points ready
Unless you have an agenda item allocated to you, it can be hard to plan what you are going to say. This can easily trigger your anxiety in meetings.
One of my mentors gave me this trick before attending a board meeting in which I felt completely out of place: prepare one or two points for you to talk about, related to the meeting agenda, even if you don’t plan on discussing them.
This helps you feel in control.
You won’t be going into that meeting blind and you will know that you have something to contribute.
It is important to keep something in mind here: only contribute where you can add value. Do not try to talk for the sake of it, without purpose or intent. This could damage your credibility (see next point).
Be quiet and listen
For years, I thought that the most important thing in a meeting was to participate, and I even focused on how much I talked versus other attendants. Wrong attitude.
It’s OK to be quiet.
By focusing too much on what you are going to say, you tend to lose your authenticity, and more importantly, you do not listen to what others are saying.
Don’t be afraid of silence.
Stop and think: is what I want to say adding value, or is it just making me look good? If the former, you can then contribute in your own words where necessary, having absorbed what everyone else has said.
Mind your body language
Although I do not completely adhere to the idea that communication is “7% verbal and 93% non verbal”, body language is absolutely crucial to your presence in meetings. I would go further, saying that it makes a difference even when you are meeting remotely (e.g. conference calls, Skype, etc…).
Internally, the way you hold yourself influences the way you speak and how confident you feel about what you are saying. Externally, people will feel more at ease as you project that confidence.
This topic deserves a full article, but as a shortcut to increase your presence in meeting, focus on these:
- Lean in slightly to show engagement (but so much as to be overwhelming)
- Make sure your hands are visible (hidden hands make you look less trustworthy)
- Make eye contact (or… do you have something to hide?)
- Open up the body and take up space
The key is to appear positive yet credible. Confident yet respectful. It is an art, and getting it right takes practice.
I love that hack, it has helped me so many times dealing wit anxiety in meetings. And so, so simple…
There are several benefits to taking notes:
- You have an instant overview of what was discussed, which in turn can help you make a point or form an argument
- You remain fully attentive to the discussion
- You have a record of the discussion. Don’t overestimate your ability to remember. You will forget 80%-90% of what was discussed.
- If you’re nervous and not sure what to say (or even what you’re doing here), it is a great way to keep the mind busy and reduce anxiety.
- It helps people feel heard and builds trust
The way you take notes is personal to you. I like to use my laptop rather than pen and paper (currently using Microsoft OneNote) to make sure I keep track of them. As a result, I am also able to modify and rearrange at will.
I’ve started reading “The Mind Map Book” from Tony and Barry Buzan which is full of actionable advice on how to use mind mapping to plan what you will say on the spot and helps develop your critical thinking. A definite recommendation.
In today’s busy society, it is too easy to move from one thing to the next. Therefore I think it is very important to take time after a meeting to reflect and follow-up.
Are there any action points I committed to? Make sure you keep track of these – in business, there is nothing worse than a promise unfulfilled. Best under-promise and over-deliver, than the other way around (although – better to over-promise and just deliver…).
Have you made new connections? Why not send a follow-up email to slowly transform these connections into relationships?
Was anything unclear? Anything you didn’t fully understand? You should look it up, do some research, and expand your knowledge.
These steps will give you a sense of control, and will help you prepare for your next meeting.
OK so maybe you weren’t at your best. Or maybe you were. How can you objectively know unless you ask others?
Perception of self is a funny thing. We tend to have a negative bias. I know I do. The number of times I thought I failed a presentation to then receive positive feedback…
Of course, it can be the opposite. But best to know.
There will be people you trust and feel comfortable with, enough to ask them what they honestly thought about your contribution at the meeting. Were you waffling? Making no sense? Did you seem completely unprepared? Or did you transpire confidence? Did you pitch your ideas perfectly?
Once you get that feedback, it is up to you to take action and work on your weaknesses.
Try not to be demotivated when you hear negative feedback. On the contrary, if someone is nice enough to express constructive criticism, you’re sitting on a gold mine: you can target these negatives, and turn them into positives.
An example for me was my tendency to mumble. Not a great thing to hear as feedback. But it helped me focus on that one thing for a while: pronunciation. And yes, it involved having pencils in my mouth whilst repeating tongue-twisters…
If there is one thing, one thought, you owe to take with you at any meeting, it is this one:
If someone wants you there, you intrinsically have value to bring.
It doesn’t mean you need to be loud, overbearing and striking power poses the whole way through.
My personality makes me a very quiet person in meetings. And I’m not sorry about it. But when I have something to say, people listen.
So, in conclusion:
- Be yourself
- Be aware
- Be willing to grow
I’d love to hear: what are your tips and hacks to tackle anxiety in meetings?
Please share this post if you found it useful!