Scarier than being buried alive? Tips on how to participate in group discussions.


Even the most seasoned speaker will tell you that he or she often feels nervous before speaking to groups. In one study out of England, people said they feared public speaking more than they feared being buried alive! That fear rarely has to do with intelligence. In fact, researchers at a Virginia Research Institute found that often highly intelligent people, when in a groups, hesitate before speaking out. They assume that others are more intelligent or have better ideas. Clearly, it’s a lack of confidence in one’s self and one’s ideas.

The reaction is very common, particularly among women who may doubt their ability or lack confidence engaging in a male-dominated conversation (and in a male-dominated field!). But it also rings true for all individuals who may resist jumping into group discussions.

When asked why some people don’t engage in group discussions, common responses include: “I didn’t have anything to say” or “I didn’t want to sound dumb”. Perhaps you’re having a bad day, slept badly the night before, or you’re feeling ill. All of these can contribute to feeling a lack of clarity or confidence.It should be said that being shy is not a crime, and nor is a lack of confidence. But given that engaging in group discussions can be extremely important and valuable for professional development, working towards overcoming one’s shyness and lack of confidence is worth working on. Practice and preparation make all the difference. gd1

There are some simple tips to helping you engage in group conversations.

  • First, try to look at why you might hesitate to engage in group discussions. Perhaps you are full of ideas but too shy to open your mouth. You don’t want to risk asking a question some might find silly, or you’re afraid to show the group that you don’t understand the topic of discussion.
  • Prepare yourself on the topic. Do your research ahead of time and think of ways to introduce or support your ideas. Practice asking questions out loud, with volume, strength and clarity.
Before the group setting, consider having a side discussion with another student or the professor to share ideas or ask questions one-on-one. This should give you confidence for the larger group discussions. If you feel that you’ve tried to engage but can’t get your voice heard, tell the person running the meeting ahead of time that you have some points to share and could he or she invite you into the discussion. But when someone else is speaking, listen closely and be thoughtful about your response. gd1


  • Take small steps. Sharing your own ideas may be frightening at first; so, start small and begin by engaging in other people’s ideas. If someone says something you agree with, say it. “I agree with so and so.” Chime in with encouragement. “I think that’s a good idea” This encouragement can also build rapport with these students, all of whom want to feel validated. Even nodding your head in agreement is a step in the direction of participation.
  • If you have questions, ask that someone clarify his or her reasoning. “Can I ask you to expand on that a bit more?” You can try to summarize or reframe the idea: “Did you mean this?” Try to build upon or contribute to other people’s comments until you feel confident enough to branch out on your own.
  • If you’re nervous about proposing an alternate viewpoint, try at first to couch it: “If played devil’s advocate for a moment…”, “Should we also consider…” or “Have we thought about…”

As you continue to engage in large and small ways, you’ll start to trust your own ideas. Showing self-confidence is contagious; if you feel confident about yourself and your ideas, others are more likely to begin to share your viewpoint. And as your confidence grows, you may begin to care less how others respond to your input and questioning. If you’re a woman, you may have never before been encouraged to share your ideas.


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