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A Better Way to Prepare for Meetings

A Better Way to Prepare for Meetings

As a women’s leadership coach, I have the privilege of working with bright, talented women every day. Unfortunately, many struggle with confidence issues, including impostor syndrome, which make them question their value and fitness for the work they do.

I recently asked a group of women:

What is happening when you feel least confident in the workplace?

The vast majority responded that they are most likely to experience confidence dips when they feel unprepared.

What does it mean to be prepared? For most of the women I know, feeling prepared means cramming for the exam. It means studying and memorizing the material with the goal of anticipating as many potential questions as possible. It means mastering the content to the extent that others see you as an expert in what you’re talking about.

Many of us were excellent students back in the day. We excelled because we were given crystal-clear success criteria and a finite amount of content to process. Learn (or memorize) the material, ace the test. It was that simple.

Of course, because that served us well in the past, we want and expect those same study habits to make us successful in the workplace. As most of us learn the hard way, though, school and work are very different playing fields.

In the workplace, what we are expected to know isn’t conveniently defined and packaged into learning modules. We’re not provided with syllabi and study guides to focus our attention. Therefore, preparing for meetings as though we’re in an academic environment leaves us feeling shaky and insecure.

We ask ourselves:

Did I miss something?

What if they ask me a follow-up question and I don’t have the answer?

What if they ask me a question about something I haven’t studied?

The resulting anxiety leaves us feeling like there’s always more to do before we’re ready for prime time. We may keep our heads down, avoid others, or lose sleep, all in the name of preparation. But because there is no way to measure success, despite our best efforts, we consistently show up feeling vulnerable and under-prepared.

Unfortunately, we can’t study our way to success in the workplace. This is especially true if your role requires creativity and innovation. Creating something new inherently requires stepping outside of the defined way of thinking and doing.

The good news is that most of us aren’t solely measured on what we know. We’re also measured on how we think, how we engage with others, and how we respond when we don’t have the answers. Instead of preparing the academic way, let’s prepare for the inevitable – not knowing everything.

To maximize your confidence stepping into a meeting, prioritize your response to this question: What will you do when you don’t have the answer? Have a plan for how you will respond when someone asks you something you simply don’t know.

Here are some questions to consider.

[Related: Yes, You Really Are Creative]

What language will you use?

Be thoughtful about how you frame your response. Instead of going on the defense, go on the offense.

It’s okay not to know everything. What undermines us isn’t the lack of information; it’s how we communicate it.

Here are two different ways to respond:

I’m so sorry. I know I should know that but I guess I must have missed it. Sometimes I just space out. Next time I’ll do a better job preparing.

That’s a question I wasn’t expecting. Let me do some digging and I’ll get back to you later today.

Which of these statements do you think inspires others to have more confidence in you? The latter, of course.

As soon as you start criticizing yourself, you open the door for others to do so, as well. Once again, we can’t know everything. If you find yourself in that situation, assertively own it and move on.

[Related: 3 Myths About Confidence That Stop Women From Being Heard]

Who are your resources?

Know who else will be in the room with you and be prepared to confidently engage them in the discussion. Depending on the players in the room and the stakes of the conversation, not having the answer directly at our fingertips can send us immediately into fight or flight mode.

In these moments, it’s very difficult to problem-solve. Think ahead of time about who else will be in the room with you that might be able to step in if you feel in over your head.

Here’s a potential response:

I don’t have the answer to that right now. Jim, is there anything you can share about that?

What is the worst-case scenario?

As a lifelong anxiety sufferer, having a plan for the worst-case scenario has gotten me through many scary situations. Ideally you won’t need to use it, but not having a plan will have you tormenting yourself with imagined scenes of failure and humiliation, making it virtually impossible to show up in a position of strength.

What will you do if someone calls you out for not knowing the answer? What if you begin to shrink in embarrassment? What if it feels like everyone is judging you?

First off, know that your interpretation of the situation is likely much harsher than reality. But we all know that bullies and tough guys do exist.

Here are some possible responses:

I wasn’t prepared to share that information today, but will follow up and provide it to you as soon as possible after this meeting. Would you like me to schedule a brief follow-up meeting on your calendar?

I don’t have that information right now, but will get it to you by the end of today.

Would you like to take a ten-minute break and I’ll go track that down for you right now?

If you respond positively and assertively and the other person still pushes back, know that others are likely feeling very uncomfortable and sympathetic in that moment, as well. Most of us have experienced those “there but for the grace of God go I” moments ourselves and cringe when we see it happening. If you handle yourself well, more than likely the other person is going to be the one who ends up looking foolish.

We raise the bar to an unrealistic level when we try to know everything before stepping into the room. Instead, have a plan for what happens when you don’t have the answer.

[Related: Five Reasons Strategic Leaders Need to Ask Good Questions]

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Kim Meninger is an executive coach and consultant who specializes in women’s leadership. She is passionate about helping women in traditionally male-dominated fields to build their confidence, visibility, and influence.


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