“All my failures can be traced to my silence.” These words, in a post by Danielle LaPorte, triggered a montage of silence-induced-failure memories. My first marriage: how many times had I simply shut up while he ranted? The job I was fired from: how many nights had I secretly cried because I felt overwhelmed but didn’t want to disappoint my employer? The unfinished, or un-started, conversations ‘cos my throat closed up with emotion, or I didn’t want to pry, or I couldn’t come up with the words.
Speaking up is not always easy. We risk being misunderstood and judged. We make ourselves vulnerable to criticism and conflict. We chance rejection. But, by staying silent we guarantee disconnection, isolation and dejection.
Speaking up takes courage. Doing it well also takes skill.
- Name it to tame it: Instead of waiting to feel confident before speaking up, start by naming your feelings. When you feel intimidated or self-conscious your fight-or-flight responses kick in. The part of your brain that is programmed to get you away from danger as quickly as possible cannot form intelligent sentences. Naming your feelings can calm that part and reconnect you with your prefrontal cortex, from which lateral, creative, connecting language emerges. If you’re feeling unsure, say: “I’m feeling unsure how to say this, but here goes.” If you’re anxious say: “I’m feeling anxious but I have something to say.” If you’re feeling angry, say: “I’m feeling angry but I’d like to get something off my chest.”
- Name but don’t blame. This might be hard to accept but no-one is making you feel what you feel. You’re doing that all by yourself through the story you are telling yourself about whatever is going on. The reality is: an event happens; you judge the event according to what feels good or bad to you; and this drives your emotional reaction. All events are neutral until you judge them. Unfortunately our default human reaction to the experience of discomfort is to blame others for it. Stop it.
- Get curious. The way you’ve interpreted the situation could be wrong. Be open to the possibility that there is another perspective. This is not about making yourself wrong for having your feelings. It’s about honoring that you are having an emotional reaction AND realizing that you could be misunderstanding the situation. It’s about being wise and discerning and intelligent enough to allow yourself to be wrong. It’s about growth and connection. After naming your feelings ask: “did I get this? Was it your intention that I feel this way? Did I understand you correctly or did I misunderstand you?”
- Speak up FOR something, rather than AGAINST it or someone. According to renowned conflict negotiator William Ury, the greatest stumbling block to successful negotiation is that parties often do not know what they want. Many people are good at saying what they don’t want, but not many are good at articulating what they do want. Before you start a potentially difficult conversation be sure you have clarified what you want. Speak up FOR that.