I’m not sure that asking how to sound confident is the right question. Ever heard of the phrase ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’? Surely confidence is the same thing, right? It is a perceived attribute. Is someone like Trump confident, arrogant or ignorant? And what's the difference between confidence and assertiveness? Trying to chase after the characteristics of confidence is a fool’s errand.
When you ask how to sound confident, you’re starting from the outside in - it’s back to front. So what might it mean to go from the inside out? I’m positive that the answer to this question is very individual. But let me tell you a story...
I came from a working class family, relatively poor and suffered a great deal of bullying and very little support. I looked on in envy at those who I perceived to be confident and spent a long time trying to imitate their behaviour, their use of language, their use of voice. And yet I felt more and more conflicted. Why wasn’t I being listened to? Why wasn’t I being welcomed in to this or that group of people? Why didn’t I feel worthy?
In my late 20s as part of my work I found myself in what was a fairly regular meeting one day with some seriously smart, experienced and well respected people whom I had worked alongside for many years. The almost impenetrable intellectual and nuanced conversations ensued and I felt - as I often did - unable to find a way in.
I gave up and resigned myself to listening instead. This I knew how to do well (as did I know how to write carefully considered emails which I would then share with those present once the meeting had finished, eloquently expressing the thoughts that I had felt unable to share during the meeting).
But in that particular meeting, in my silent contemplation, I found my ears pricked up to a certain statement someone made and felt immediately connected to a strong feeling of opposition and before I knew it, words were coming out of my mouth: eloquent words; words with intention; words with confidence. Once I made my statement I felt taken aback. That’s not me I thought. I don’t speak up in meetings. That’s it, you’re done for now.
And then something life-changing happened. Someone nodded their head in agreement. And then another. And then two more. The point I made was then tossed around a bit but enough people got on board and it stuck. I had shared my thoughts. I had influenced the group. I had been valued by others.
I had spent years in these sorts of meetings, attempting to speak up, attempting to sound like I had something of value or interest and inevitably left with a feeling of self loathing and confusion. But I was going about it the wrong way. I was working from the outside in. So working from the inside out in the pursuit of perceived confidence seems to have three parts:
First and foremost is listening deeply and then speaking from your core values and beliefs. Not trying to be clever or interesting but honest and simple. And then open your mouth and speak when that impulse really needs to be expressed and would an effort to hold back.
Feeling that you belong. Those nodding heads and continued discussion of my comment made me feel that I had been heard and seen and valued. That’s like rocket fuel. But it was born out of listening and being present with myself.
Experience. I had proved something important to myself: if you speak up you’re not going to die. And as far as my nervous system was concerned, that was the perceived threat and it was enough to keep me in silence (but only because I was trying to be like them rather than being myself). It is scary, and there have been many instances after that meeting where my comments weren’t supported. But that’s not the point. The point is I hadn’t died then, and given that I’m writing this blog post 15 years or so later, I haven’t died since! Nor have I been rejected from the group. In fact, I have been embraced more (as it turned out it was actually my silence that was precluding me from being welcomed fully into the group). Experience has shown me that so long as you listen and speak from your core values and beliefs honestly and simply, you’ll live another day and be valued for contributing, whether or not people agree.
If you try out this strategy and you’re not valued by those around you and you don’t gain a sense of belonging, ask yourself whether the people you are around are the people whom you should be around? Is there a toxic culture in the organisation, family or social group in which you find yourself? Is it time to move on?