David Strittmatter

Feeling too dumb to speak up? How to deal with it and change your perspective

The more I live, the more I learn. The more I learn, the more I realize how little I know


  • We’re not dumb but make comparisons we shouldn’t do in the first place
  • By judging ourselves as dumb, we put ourselves in an unfavorable situation
  • We fail to contribute if we’re too afraid to speak up as a consequence of calling ourselves dumb

Practical advice:

  • First, master the art of listening right
  • Second, even if you don’t know anything, you can contribute to a discussion methodologically
  • Third, be curious and eager to learn

Dear friend,

Ever had a discussion with someone apparently far more experienced than you? Maybe the boss of your boss, a medical doctor, colleagues with decades of experience, your parents?

Feels quite frightening to dissent or contribute, right?

After finishing last week’s project, I joined a new one this week, reminding of a situation I’ve encountered a few times in the past:

Every time we work on something new, we first have to learn the ropes (i.e. get into the topic). Particularly at the beginning, though, we struggle with even the most simple topics, such as abbreviations or definitions.

In consulting, surrounded by top-notch experts and highly motivated colleagues, junior colleagues often have to fight this feeling of “being dumb”. Even though this natural reaction is totally common, it’s something we need to take special care of.

In today’s article, I will write about why we feel dumb in the first place, why it’s totally common but still bad, and what we can do about it so that we can better deal with our anxiety to speak up.

Almost everything in this world is relative

According to dictionaries, dumb means lacking intelligence or good judgment. Telling ourselves that we’re dumb thus implies that we lack mental abilities and experience to make good decisions (judgment).

What’s wrong with that?

First, wherever we made it – great university, great employer, great position, etc. – the people who gave us this opportunity were convinced that we’re capable of filling that role. Hence, we should trust rather their judgment that we’ve got the necessary abilities and experience than ours that we lack them.

Second, almost everything in this world is relative. Most people – including you and I – compare things to make judgments, and – as you might guess – it’s not always a wise approach. For instance, if you’re surrounded by tech geeks and everything you can do with a computer is to browse on your favorite sites, send emails and share selfies on social media, you’re likely considered as “not smart”. If you move to a place where people know absolutely nothing about computers (e.g. a retirement home), though, your little activities on a laptop suddenly make you look “really advanced”.

When we compare ourselves with others and don’t have the edge, we call ourselves dumb. In fact, though, we’re not dumb but make comparisons we shouldn’t do in the first place.

Just because it’s common doesn’t make it acceptable

By judging ourselves as dumb, we put ourselves in an unfavorable situation:

First, no matter how little experience we have, we can always contribute creative ideas. Creativity knows no limitations. If we call ourselves dumb, though, we subordinate ourselves, preventing us from contributing ideas, which might lead to a better outcome.

Second, there’s nobody knowing everything and always considering every relevant factor. Hence, even if we’re significantly less experienced than the people surrounding us, we still can contribute by highlighting aspects not considered yet. However, we fail to contribute if we’re too afraid to speak up as a consequence of calling ourselves dumb.

Third, since we fail to contribute our ideas and perspective, we learn less than we could. Therefore, not only the result is worse but also we can contribute less in the future due to our flatter learning curve.

How to speak up despite feeling dumb

Now, what can we do about this natural reaction?

First, master the art of listening right. Before I contribute anything, I first listen carefully: Listening is purposeful and focused rather than accidental. It requires motivation and effort. Listening, at its best, is active, focused, and concentrated attention for the purpose of understanding the meanings expressed by another person.

Moreover, good listening is much more than being silent while the other person talks. The best listeners periodically ask questions that promote discovery and insight. If you don’t understand something, you can “hide” your lack of experience and understanding by asking “what does this mean FOR YOU” instead of asking “what does this mean”.

Second, focus on contributing your perspective instead of great insights. Even if you don’t know anything, you can contribute to a discussion methodologically. If we’re less experienced than the people surrounding us, we shouldn’t expect ourselves to contribute groundbreaking insights.

What’s a great method to give your perspective is to challenge unstated assumptions. Think about what’s implicitly assumed and why these assumptions lead to a rather suboptimal outcome. For instance, your friends talk about politics and discuss why we should (not) increase taxes. You now could question the assumption of whether that is the only means to achieve the desired goal (more equality).

In the work context, your colleagues might discuss how they structure the PowerPoint presentation for a virtual workshop. You then might question whether they need to have a PowerPoint presentation in the first place and don’t use tools like MURAL.

Third, be curious and eager to learn. Particularly at the workplace, you should learn the ropes as quickly as possible. One method that greatly helps me: Every time, there’s is something I don’t know I write it down as a question if I cannot ask someone to explain it to me at the very moment. Then, I schedule a short meeting with one of my more experienced colleagues and ask them all these questions during the meeting. This method greatly helped me to get into a new topic faster.

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