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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

3 Times You Should Speak First at Work (and 3 Times You Shouldn't)

I took a class once that used a talking stick to facilitate conversation. If you’re not familiar, this is a tool used to make sure everyone’s voice is heard because you can only chime in when you’re holding it.

Oh, if only the workplace had such a clear-cut process. Sometimes it’s tough to know when to speak up, and when to let the other person go first. Maybe you’re negotiating a raise, dealing with an angry client, or on a conference call with senior executives. When do you cede the floor—and when do you take the lead?

While I can’t provide the answer for every situation, I can tell you best practices.

1. You Speak First When You’re Negotiating a Raise at Work

If you’re asking your boss for a raise and you have all the research and data to back up why you deserve it, you should put your desired salary out there first. When you do that—go for a slightly aggressive but realistic figure—you’ll influence the rest of the conversation, and it should go in your favor.

This is because the number you state becomes the anchor in the negotiation. A high figure will draw the other person’s attention to the positive aspects of that number. For example, if you set your salary sights high, your boss will be tempted to think about all your great attributes and why you’re deserving of that number. If you low-ball yourself, he’ll be tempted to think about your performance flaws. By speaking first in this situation (and going high), you influence the negotiation to work in your favor.

2. Let the Other Person Speak First When Discussing Salary in an Interview

When you’re in the running for a new job, the standard advice holds true: Never disclose your salary requirements first. This puts you at a potential disadvantage for a couple of reasons. You could price yourself out of a great job by over-reaching. Or, if you undershoot the number, the hiring manager may make you a super lowball offer.

Every hiring manager has a range that’s assigned to jobs that are open. Instead of candidly stating your requirements, ask him or her to share what the range for this particular job is and where he expects the compensation for this position to land.

3. You Speak First When Attending a Meeting

Just because you attends lots of meetings doesn’t mean you’re always comfortable chiming in. But research shows that the earlier you speak up in this setting, the more successful a participant you’ll be. Of course you want to be prepared, informed, and on point.

Waiting until the end —after everyone else has contributed—means you’ll end up comparing your comments to those that have already been made and stressing about adding anything of importance.

4. Let the Other People Speak if You’re Leading a Team Meeting

Say you’re in a leadership role, and you’re having a meeting with your team. Your goal is to come up with some ideas about how to fix a big problem pertaining to the project you’re working on. If there was ever a time to concede the floor, this is it.

If you genuinely want people to contribute ideas and opinions, you’ve got to give them a chance to talk without interruption before you present your thoughts. If you automatically go first, you risk alienating your team, putting them in a position where they’re not inclined to disagree with you or offer an alternate point of view. As a result, you potentially exit the brainstorm with fewer possible solutions.

5. You Speak First When Working with Introverted Colleagues

You may enjoy being the center of attention and feel invigorated when you interact with others, but not everyone feels similarly. You may find yourself working with colleagues who appear shy, quiet, or extremely introverted, and this is a great opportunity to take the lead in the conversation. Speak first, but be open to hearing what your colleagues have to say.

Engage the quieter party by asking questions or delivering compliments. When you do, you’ll help break the ice, and help your co-workers feel more comfortable. And as a result, the two of you will be effective collaborators.

6. Let the Other Person Speak First if He or She’s an Angry Colleague

When a client’s angry, the first rule is to remain calm. Listen to the person, put yourself in her shoes, and do your best to see it from her perspective.

Often someone who’s upset needs to vent and feel heard before you can move forward toward solving the actual problem. Any attempt for you to address the concerns before they’re unloaded will be rejected. Once you’ve listened, demonstrate that you’ve paid attention by repeating back what you heard. Then, start working on solutions.

There may be no talking sticks where you work. But you can use the idea in any number of situations, whether or not you’re holding it. Thinking of the outcome you’re hoping for can help you decide how to approach a situation. When you make thoughtful decisions about when to speak, and when to listen, you’ll not only achieve better results, but you’ll demonstrate leadership and competence in your communication skill set.

Photo of man at meeting courtesy of Thomas Barwick/Getty Images.