Have you ever mulled over a conversation, wishing you’d said something that was important to you, or dared to disagree? Whether at home, work or socially, we’d all like to communicate authentically and effectively. And, in a world where your voice can be crucial to your career, knowing how to speak up for yourself and get your message across in a calm and lucid fashion is a must-have skill.
Anita Chaudhuri explores why speaking up for yourself is vital for our wellbeing and a fairer society. She examines the barriers that keep us silent and offers strategies to help us use our voice with confidence…
‘Finding a voice means you can get your own feeling into your own words and that your words have the feel of you about them.’ – Seamus Heaney
How to find your voice
The other day, I found myself in an uncomfortable situation. I wanted to address someone’s behaviour, but found it challenging. The person is the leader of a group I belong to and uses his position to make catty comments under the guise of ‘banter’. ‘Someone needs to have a word with him,’ I fumed to a fellow group member. As long as that someone wasn’t me…
The fear of speaking up for yourself
Why is speaking up so daunting? I am no shrinking violet, yet I agonise over turning down an invitation or questioning a decision with which I don’t agree. Often, I find it easier to put up and shut up– after all, no one else seems to have a problem with this guy. ‘It’s just his sense of humour,’ said my friend after he belittled someone, but it didn’t feel like a joke to me.
‘It can feel safer to stay quiet and not rock the boat,’ agrees Chloe Brotheridge, author of The Confidence Solution (Penguin, £9.99). ‘So much of it comes down to conditioning. At work, for instance, if a man speaks his mind, he’s a good leader but, when a woman does it, she’s seen as bitchy or bossy.’
There’s a beautiful quote in Brotheridge’s book by author Debbie Ford, renowned for her work on the shadow self: ‘The greatest act of courage is to be and to own all of who you are – without apology, without excuses, without masks to cover the truth of who you are.’
In any situation where we are required to speak up, this gets to the root of our deepest fear – that we will be seen by others and judged harshly for it. The temptation is to hide by avoiding speaking upor copying the style and opinions of others when we do speak.
Brotheridge points out that there’s a tendency to disown the parts of ourselves that we don’t like. ‘But the downside of filtering yourself – editing yourself down to a socially acceptable self – is that you filter out the good as well as the bad. That doesn’t leave much room for authenticity.’
Confidence verses bravery when learning how to speak up for yourself
Surprisingly, Brotheridge believes confidence is overrated. ‘Bravery is more important, and you can take small, constructive steps to practise being braver. Every time we challenge ourselves in a small way, our nervous system may respond with fear but, when we survive that experience, something within us exhales.
An inner voice says: ‘Ah, this is OK. Maybe it’s safe for me to speak up! Even if I did say the wrong thing, maybe it’s not as bad as I thought it might be.’ Bravery gives you confidence.
Where does your fear of speaking up for yourself come from?
’Unpacking where our fear of speaking up came from can be the first step in creating lasting change. In therapy, examining a person’s fear of speaking up can expose interesting material in their psyche,’ says psychotherapist and author Julia Bueno. What are you really scared of? ‘Often, those worries are revealed to be irrational.
For example, someone might say they are terrified of speaking up about a problem at work because then everyone will hate them and they will lose their job, then their house and end up homeless! My response is that such fears are ridiculous, but also not ridiculous.’
Find your fear’s origin to learn how to speak up for yourself
It can be helpful to track your fear of speaking up for yourself back to its origin. Bring to mind past experiences where you did not feel able to speak up. ‘Maybe you grew up in a buttoned-up family, where everyone was silent,’ says Bueno.
‘Or maybe your family was one where, if you did speak up, all hell broke loose and you were frightened. It can feel revolutionary to make connections with the past and realise how many years those stories go back.’
My fears of speaking up are not connected to my family. We enjoyed total freedom to express our views and feelings. Listening to Bueno’s advice, I realised that my anxiety was rooted in a fear of being unpopular – a primal anxiety about being kicked out of the tribe.
‘None of us wants to be rejected from the group,’ says Bueno, ‘but I would also suggest that you ask yourself, in any situation where you’re visualising a worst-case scenario, has that ever happened to you when you have spoken up?’
Public speaking and the fear of humiliation
There is another aspect to speaking up that fills me, and many others, with dread – public speaking. Voice coach and author of Gravitas (Ebury, £12.99) Caroline Goyder, has also worked on uncovering unhelpful stories from the past that have created blocks to finding a voice in the present.
‘I have a client who is a senior executive. When she was promoted, she could no longer delegate making speeches. We tracked her fear back to when she had to give a presentation at school at the age of 11. Her father had insisted that the best way was to speak without notes. She forgot her lines and everyone laughed at her. She was scarred by the judgment and visibility of speaking to an audience.’
Why it’s important to learn how to speak up for yourself
It doesn’t matter what form speaking up takes, from tackling a family matter to making a speech at a wedding. The important thing is that we embrace the challenge and understand the benefits of doing so. Goyder links it to pioneering psychologist Abraham Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’.
‘Maslow identified the importance of first addressing the fundamentals of our physiology and physical safety. Speaking up is the bold step you make when those foundations are in place. It requires the kind of trust in yourself that will allow you to dive into the moment and let go of anxiety, so you can be present and listening, not lost in your head worrying.’
How to speak up for yourself
The exact method for learning how to speak up for yourself with confidence and authority depends on the underlying explanation for your fear. However, there are a few key tactics you can try to find your voice and communicate effectively and assertively…
1. Get out of your mind and into your body
To trust in yourself and let go of your anxiety, Goyder suggests getting out of your mind and into your body, particularly immediately before you speak.
‘Before they must perform, athletes are not charging around, they’re sitting quietly, preparing mentally. They understand how to use adrenalin to their advantage – as a following wind rather than a force to flatten them. Mindfulness practices such as breath work, yoga or stretching are helpful here.’
2. Communicate with assertion not anger
For many of us, speaking up for yourself is about learning an effective style of communication. ‘It can be difficult for those who haven’t grown up witnessing positive examples of assertive behaviour,’ says Bueno. ‘If you have no role models, you don’t realise that it’s possible to be assertive in a compassionate and calm way. It needn’t be about being aggressive or angry.’
4. Time your tricky conversations
If you’re trying to speak up for yourself in a one-on-one situation, have the tricky conversation at a time when you can tackle the person on their own in a quiet space, advises Bueno.
Then, she says, when you are working out what to say: ‘Less is more. When we are in a sticky conversation, we feel that we need to embellish our piece and give loads of material to justify our position. It can be a great idea to role-play the conversation with a friend to explore the different directions things could go.’
5. Avoid checking your devices before speaking
Another tip is to avoid digital devices in the run-up to speaking up. ‘Studies show that when we check our email, for example, we hold our breath. That creates disharmony in our physiology.’ explains Goyder.
6. Focus on your purpose for speaking up
One tip for overcoming nerves is to focus on why you are doing this. ‘Just saying you are doing something to make money, say, is unlikely to give you the motivation to override your fear,’ says Brotheridge.
‘Drill down and ask: what will this lead to for me? What will money bring me? It might be travel or taking time off to raise a family, or the sense of security that comes from owning a home. Focus on the end results.’
7. When figuring out how to speak up for yourself, aim for self-actualisation
We can get confused about what is required when we need to speak up, thinking it’s got something to do with what Goyder defines as ‘flashy loudness’. ‘That’s simply another way to present anxiety. What I’m talking about is self-actualisation, which is at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy.
‘He described some of the qualities of this kind of confidence: the ability to be independent, spontaneous and natural, to be able to laugh at yourself, to connect with others and to focus on a purpose beyond your ego.
‘To find confidence, you may need to override conditioning that taught you to be perfect, fit in, sit down and shut up. Self-actualisation is the zone where things get interesting. It’s where you speak up, stand out and create change.’
8. Concentrate on contribution rather than competition
Another strategy is to concentrate on contribution rather than competing with others. ‘The idea comes from conductor Ben Zander,’ says Goyder.
‘He suggested that when giving a performance, the first challenge is to overcome all the nervous system stuff. If you can focus on your audience and what you can give them, that will lead to a place of self-forgetfulness and creative flow. Flow and focus help you find your special message. What is it that you can uniquely bring to others?’
9. Practice self-compassion when learning how to speak up for yourself
Finally, as with all endeavours, perhaps the simplest thing we can do to support ourselves in speaking up is to practise self-compassion. ‘There is a correlation between fears around visibility and a vicious self-critic,’ observes Bueno.
‘Pay attention to how you speak to yourself and the state of your inner climate. The self-critic loves to talk about imaginary things, such as: ‘You are going to fail, everyone will laugh at you and you are going to get the sack; your lover will leave you and your friends will hate you. On and on it goes, so it’s little wonder that you end up fearful and mired in perfectionism.’
Instead, work on the middle ground. It’s unlikely anything dramatic is going to happen after you allow your voice to be heard. Nor do you need to feel 100 percent confident or brilliant before you do so, Bueno reminds us. ‘The key is to feel OK enough to be able to step up and let the world hear what you have to say.’