How to Be Present When You Have Nothing to Say

I have often written about the need to find your natural voice in meetings, pitches and presentations. However, there are some occasions which are not about taking a leading speaking role and so this article considers the importance of being present even if you don’t have the lion’s share of the script.

In business, aptitude and effectiveness is often judged by performance in meetings – one on one or as part of a larger group – and of bringing a voice to the room. The ideal meeting involves the triangulation of ideas, opinions and plans for further action with a balanced contribution from all involved. Nevertheless, the reality is often rather different. Forget the personalities who come with a louder voice or too many opinions and who speak because they have to say something, many meetings are dominated by senior figures whose words carry more weight simply because of their position.

Such scenarios can be intimidating for junior members who feel the pressure to perform in order to be noticed. This is something that everyone climbing the career ladder will face and for those who are more established it is always worth remembering that we were all there once.

Often in these situations, junior members are given limited opportunities to contribute to their perceived best abilities and as a consequence feel as if they have failed to participate sufficiently. Well, rather than slump into the negatives, there is an important skill to be learnt here – that of being present while having nothing to say. So how does one achieve this Zen like state of engagement without verbally engaging?

It may sound obvious but the first rule of this new form of engagement is to ensure you remain engaged! You may be playing a passive role but that does not mean you have licence to switch off. Without verbalizing, body language becomes more significant, and so always be conscious of this; no slouching, no blank gaze, focus on how you follow the conversation with your body language and respond empathetically to its twists. Essentially, we are talking about using the eyes, but also mimicking the tone of the conversation with subtle facial expressions, smiling without sliding into sycophancy and knowing when to show no expression at all.

While you may be itching to contribute, to show your value it’s important to pick your moment well. One good point made is worth five meaningless interruptions which contribute little to the conversation and really are examples of showing off to score points which almost always backfire.

Note taking is a great way to show engagement without actively engaging. By this I mean clear, concise, occasional notes (not absent doodling), which can be used to raise a valid point either in the meeting itself or in follow up conversations with senior team members. It will show that you have absorbed, contemplated and come to a well thought out conclusion.

A good leader will make sure all voices are included – or at least given the opportunity to contribute – and respond accordingly. While some people will always speak louder, be aware that they are not necessarily right, or indeed representing majority opinion in the team. Significantly, experienced seniors will be aware of this dynamic too.

Above all, learn to be comfortable with not saying anything if there is nothing to say. In years to come it will serve you well as you reach your own position of seniority and on this note I can also recommend studying how leader will often harness the power of silence to project authority. It may seem counter intuitive, but so long as you are present in the moment, there are many lessons to be learnt from not speaking up.