Of all the different kinds of communication, speaking up is probably the most overlooked. That’s because while most kinds of communication occur between two (or more) individuals, speaking up begins with a conversation with oneself.
At their best, conversations with other people feel easy, and there’s a comfortable back-and-forth. However, there are times when you feel a sense of dis-ease and a growing mismatch between what is — and isn’t — being said. That’s your first clue that it may be time to speak up.
What is speaking up?
Speaking up is when you communicate publicly, assertively, and honestly for the rights and needs of yourself and others. It is at the root of all social change, including within organizations.
For many of us, it’s easier to advocate for others than it is to speak up for ourselves. However, when we don't speak up for ourselves, we erode our sense of self-worth. We become engaged in a cycle of rationalizing behavior that takes us further away from our values and — ultimately — away from the person that we want to become.
What's the role of boundaries when speaking up?
At its heart, speaking up is really a conversation regarding boundaries. The uncomfortable feeling that you associate with needing to say something (even if you’re afraid to say it) is called cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the psychological term for the mental distress that arises when you’re trying to balance two conflicting thoughts, feelings, or values.
When you feel that you need to speak up, you instinctively feel that a boundary or value that you hold has been violated in some way. However, the desire to reinforce the boundary comes into conflict with another value: the desire to be accepted. This can be especially strong in close relationships or at work, where the stakes are high.
Why are you afraid of speaking up?
Our brains don’t differentiate much between emotional danger and physical danger. Whether it’s a saber-toothed tiger or a “We need to talk,” our sympathetic nervous system (the part responsible for the “flight or fight” response) kicks into high gear.
What we’re responding to is the social threat or the concern that we’ll have to choose between being accepted by our peers and what we personally find unacceptable. When we stay silent in the face of that cognitive stress, however, the consequences don’t just disappear. Instead of causing damage to our social standing, we simply internalize the emotional fallout.
Why, then, would we choose not to speak up? It’s because our communication patterns, like most of what we do, are habits. If we’ve repeatedly had negative experiences around advocating for ourselves or social acceptance, we’re less likely to feel safe speaking up.
Some reasons people feel too afraid to speak up are based in:
If we were ridiculed, yelled at, or abused for speaking up as children, it can be difficult to advocate for ourselves and our needs as adults. Often, examining our relationships with our parents and siblings provides important insights into our communication styles as adults.
Past traumatic experiences when speaking up
It might be getting laughed at for getting an answer wrong or having to choose which of your parents to live with. Regardless of the stakes, if the outcome was stressful or traumatic you may have unconsciously shut down your voice as a way to prevent further harm.
In a recent survey of 1,100 female employees, 45 percent of them said that speaking up at work was difficult. Societal gender expectations play a role in this disparity. Women are socialized to be less assertive, and those who do speak up are often labeled as “difficult” to work with.
Fear of retaliation
If your opinion contradicts that of someone important to you, you may be afraid of the repercussions of speaking up. Although it’s unethical, drawing attention may result in loss of income, opportunities, comfort, or status — and proving retaliation can be difficult.
Concern for what others think
Even if you don’t have anything to “lose,” per se, speaking up still isn’t easy. You may fear upsetting a friendship, bringing tension into a comfortable setting, not fitting in, or being seen as a troublemaker.
When should you speak up?
Speaking up is always a challenge, but chances are, you’ll feel worse about not speaking up when it really counts. While it may feel easier to rationalize behavior that you’d rather not deal with, it eventually takes a toll on your well-being — not to mention the overall workplace culture.
Here are six times that you should always speak up:
1. When you notice someone is upset. Speaking on behalf of another person is often easier, but no less powerful. The person you step in for will feel more empowered, more comfortable voicing their own experience, and you may pave the way for others to share more openly as well.
2. When something goes against the rules of the workplace. Culture is a critical part of a thriving workplace. Behavior that undermines an inclusive, safe work environment should not be tolerated. It's always a good idea to speak out for your rights, especially when something goes against the official labor or human resources policy. You may save your company and colleagues from legal action.
3. When it sets a dangerous precedent. Boundary violations rarely happen in isolation, and they have an unfortunate tendency to escalate. Speaking up when something unethical or dangerous occurs prevents you and your team from ending up on the slippery slope to justifying unacceptable actions.
4. When you have the upper hand. Whether you are in a leadership role or benefit from racial, social, or economic privilege, it’s your responsibility to speak up for those who don’t have the same advantage. Your status may protect you from facing the same repercussions that another person might face for intervening.
5. When no one else does. We’ve all experienced that moment of looking around the room, wondering who is going to “point out the obvious” or ask the unspoken question. If you feel certain others have the same question or concern, nothing’s gained by letting it go unexpressed. It often feels safer to speak up in these situations, since you can feel the relief of the entire group when someone finally says “what everyone was thinking.”
6. When the little inner voice says to speak up. The more aware you are of your feelings and the feelings of others, the more difficult it becomes to stay silent when something seems off. The problem doesn’t just disappear either. One study found that on average, employees spent more than two weeks ruminating about moments when they didn’t speak up, costing their organization approximately $7,500 per conversation.
How to start speaking up
Speaking up is something that you can practice and learn to be comfortable with. The key to being successful at it is managing the cognitive dissonance. It’s quite possible that speaking up for yourself will never be easy, as it nearly always involves some level of social threat. However, it can become a habit, and there are steps you can take to make it easier.
Before you speak up:
1. Ask yourself: when am I most likely to need to speak up? Is there a conversation that I’m avoiding? If so, why? What am I afraid of?
2. Learn the feeling. Get familiar with the physical and emotional nudge that you have something that might be difficult to say. It may feel like a lump in the throat or butterflies in the stomach. With practice, you’ll be able to interpret the uncomfortable sensation as information.
3. Create a trigger phrase for yourself. We often try to manage the discomfort of not speaking up by forcing the feeling down. Instead, create a phrase that leads you towards speaking up (but doesn’t give you an easy way out). Try one of the following:
“I had a question about that.”
“I’m uncomfortable with that.”
“From my perspective, you said…”
There are endless ways to interject, and the right one will depend on the situation and what’s right for you. It’ll likely be a bit uncomfortable, but practicing your “trigger phrase” can make speaking up easier.
Note: Sometimes, the trigger phrase can come from another person. If you hear someone struggling to speak up or your manager asks if anyone has a question, don’t think too long before jumping in!
4. Know your rights and resources. If the matter is more serious, like a violation of a workplace harassment policy, knowing your rights and the path for escalation can help you feel more secure about standing up for yourself.
When you’re speaking up:
1. Don't fall into the over-explaining trap. Because speaking up is uncomfortable, you may feel the need to say more than you ordinarily would or keep talking to fill the space. Don’t. Keep it brief.
2. Be clear on what you want to accomplish. Are you speaking up on behalf of your own boundaries, or because you sense that a colleague is uncomfortable? Whatever the reason, the interjection — that is, speaking up — is the accomplishment. If the party you're speaking to reacts badly, avoid escalating the situation. Refer the conflict to a manager or human resources.
3. Be compassionate to all parties, including yourself. Speaking up is a difficult thing to do. We often try to deal with the emotional discomfort by redirecting it as anger at another person. Chances are, no one is trying to intentionally harm anyone else. Assuming the best of all parties will go a long way towards resolving the conflict constructively.
After speaking up:
1. Did I really just say that? There's a tendency to want to replay the conversation with others to assuage the cognitive dissonance with external validation. However this can quickly fall into gossip. Avoid the gossip trap. If you really need to discuss it, reach out to a coach.
2. Take note of how you feel. Was it difficult to speak up? How do you feel now that you said something? Are you relieved, anxious, or frustrated?
3. Replay what worked in the conversation. Did the person hear you? Did others immediately empathize with what you said? Was the conflict resolved successfully? What could you have done differently?
4. Beware the vulnerability hangover. As you develop this new skill and step out of your comfort zone, it may be difficult to deal with the emotional aftermath of feeling so vulnerable and uncomfortable. You may feel irritable, as if everyone is watching you, or worried about being labeled difficult.
Try discussing your feelings with a coach or therapist, or writing them in a journal. In particular, watch out for the tendency to compromise your boundary in future conversations to try to “regain” your previous comfort level.
Growth isn't easy, and it’s often uncomfortable. Learning to speak up for yourself, though, is always worth it.