Updated: Sep 23, 2020
Most of us understand the very real challenge of speaking up for ourselves. The feeling of tightness wrapping around our throat, our mind going blank, or the tongue tied confusion that comes out even though our thoughts are coherent outside of the situation.
If I’m completely honest my own inability to speak up is what lies at the heart of the work I do today. For a long time I struggled to set healthy boundaries, tended to take things very personally, & often felt like I was walking on eggshells as I tried to show up the way I thought I ‘should’ be. Even little things, like telling a friend when they did something that upset me was terrifying. I convinced myself that I was being caring & understanding. In reality I was bending myself to manage other’s perceptions of me even at the expense of my own self responsibility & self respect.
There’s this idea that we should all be able to just speak up for ourselves. I’ll often hear people say things like “I don’t know why they didn’t just say something” or “Why didn’t you just tell me!” Yet, there are a number of reasons why we don’t just speak up many of which are unconscious & unintentional. Perhaps we don’t actually know how we feel or what we need. Or, maybe there’s a history of being dismissed & so even when we try to speak our nervous system launches into overdrive, our minds go blank, our throat tightens, & our desire to speak is derailed.
Any of this sound familiar?
You’re not alone! I talk to people everyday who struggle with these things. Whether it’s at work, in relationship, or in the family dynamic speaking up & sharing our truth can feel impossible. The good news is that with time, patience, practice, & a little courage we can develop not only the ability to speak up but the clarity to know when our voice is needed.
How did we get here?
When you were growing up did you receive clear guidance in how to communicate, have your feelings effectively mirrored, & see your parents & family engage & work through difficult conversations? Did you have both role models who demonstrated these skills as well as the opportunities to practice & learn them?
Likely, this mixed bag. The reality is that everybody is born into a situations where we either implicitly or explicitly learn rules governing our communication. These are subject to the times, our culture, our family & the histories of their lives & communication strategies. When we unpack our history we begin to see patterns of communication ingrained from a young age. Things like ‘kids should be seen but not heard’ or ‘girls should be nice’ can influence our ability to communicate for the years to come.
Appreciate Your Starting Point
Take a moment to consider what beliefs around communication were instilled in you when you were younger. This practice is not to reinforce blame but to maturely acknowledge both our skills & current limitations in communication so that we can address them.
What did you learn about addressing authority?
Were things talked about or ignored?
Were you encouraged to share thoughts & opinions?
Were your emotions mirrored?
Did you learn how to regulate your emotions?
Were arguments won through discussion or dominance?
Did you learn how to debate? Listen effectively? Argue healthily?
By detangling the communication strategies of our past we can appreciate the skills we have & address those we wish like to cultivate. With a little self compassion, courage, & patience growth is absolutely possible.
Awaken the Courage to Speak Your Truth
Speaking our truth requires courage not only to speak but to listen & persevere through a multitude of messy & awkward conversations. As we learn these skills we inevitably develop a greater sense of esteem, self respect, & the ability to connect in relationship with more sincerity. By anchoring into ourself, assessing the situation, doing our best to optimize the conversations, & ultimately letting the conversation go we develop the consistent confidence to speak our truth & the wisdom to know when our voice is needed.
#1 Anchor into Yourself
More often then not our inability to speak up stems from a hyper-concern of how we may be received. To speak with clarity & impact we must first understand ourself, our motivation, & our message
Acknowledge Your Excuses.
Consider what is preventing you from speaking up. As you examine these excuses decide if they hold true to the person you are choosing to be today. Re-write the excuses to fit the a more empowering narrative.
“I don’t want to bother them” might become “I would like to understand this better”
“This shouldn’t bother me” might become “Something here feels off I’m curious to know what that is”
Acknowledge Your Responsibility
Acknowledge the scope of your role within the situation & take on the appropriate amount of responsibility. Each party carries a level of responsibility, be it for themselves or for the group. By accurately assessing our role in the situation we both address our own limitations & maintain healthy boundaries. In contrast by taking on too much or too little responsibility we limit our ability to learn & may lose respect for ourselves or from the other person.
Acknowledge Your Motivation
Why do you want to speak? What will you gain by speaking up?
Courage comes from the heart. Motivation based on self respect, mutual respect, & genuine care for all involved inspires courage. Often we are most challenged by those conversations where our motivation is outside of ourselves - i.e. seeking validation, needing someone to see we are right, wanting them to perceive us in a certain way. This external motivation creates hyper-sensitivity to others reactions & responses. However, when our motivation comes from our heart, our own true desires & respect, we anchor courage within our self.
Clarify Your Message
Clarify what you need to say based on a motivation of self & mutual respect. Remove superfluous details, own your role, & avoid blame & projection. Clarify the truth for yourself first. Then, after assessing the situation decide what needs to be said.
#2 Assess the Situation
A holistic assessment of the situation will help you engage in a way that both respects yours & the others needs, times, & limitations.
Assess the Facts
Clarify the facts of the situation. Remove judgements & biases so you plainly see the objective indisputable facts. These facts create a neutral foundation from which to communicate.
Assess the Impact
Speaking up, especially in vulnerable situations is risky & smart risks come with a possibility for reward. Instead of wondering what all could go wrong ask yourself what could go right? Could a clear & honest conversation build rapport or respect? If so then it's worth giving it a try. Remember speaking up can be messy & imperfect but the willingness to engage & try is at the forefront of growth.
In some situations the risk may be too high for the reward. Not everyone is going to be willing or ready to hear what we have to say. Does this mean we shouldn’t speak up… not necessarily.
If a person is dismissive or abusive we may choose not to engage out of respect for our time & effort. On the other hand their dismissal may be the very reason we speak up - not to ‘make’ them listen (as we know this is a disempowering motivation) but because it is personally important to us that we speak up for ourself & our needs. This is a deeply personal choice & it’s yours to make.
Consider the Other Side
Think about the person you are speaking with. Take time to consider their motivations, feelings, & needs. Remember this other person is also a complex multi-layered being with their own histories & conditioning. When we appreciate the other person from a human level we are more likely to approach from a kinder & more respectful place.
#3 Optimize the Conversation
When we engage in a conversation it is important to make sure that we have the best circumstances for effective discussion.
Time & Attention
If you want to address a difficult topic all parties need to the time & attention to do so. Trying to fit a big conversation into a rushed period of time will likely leave the it unresolved & create more frustration. For effective conversations ensure there is both time & space free from distraction.
Listening is fundamental to healthy conversation. Genuinely seek to understand what the other person is saying. Seek clarification, ask questions, & do your best not to assume you understand. Be respectful & willing to learn.
Embody Your Voice
Embody your voice as you speak. Feel it in your chest & gut. Speak slowly & feel the words land as you say them. When we are nervous there is a tendency to freeze up or speak fast & incoherently. Acknowledge any sensations that arise like nervous energy, allow it be there, then continue to speak from a connected place in your body. Take your time, stay aware of your breath, listen to your words, & anchor in yourself.
#4 Let Go & Let Grow
Whether the conversation ends with cohesive closure or monumental disaster let it go & let yourself grow. Sometimes a conversation closes well on it’s own & other times it opens up a pandoras box of triggers & judgements. Neither is wrong.
When the conversation is complete take time to separate from it & clear your head. Go for a walk, meet with friends, do something you enjoy. Later on when you feel calm & collected review the conversation on your own - acknowledge where you feel you acted as you wanted & recognize where would like to improve.
If, &, or when another conversation is necessary go through the previous steps again. Courage is build through time & engagement. Trust me if you are engaging, willing to learn, & open to growth then you likely are (even if you cannot see it yet).
Want to Dive Deeper?
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About the Author Amy Thiessen is a coach, writer, & musician who focuses on helping others find & express a their voice with resonance. Her unique approach works with the wholistic mechanism of voice utilizing somatic awareness, psychology, mindfulness, spiritual practice, & vocal techniques of toning & song.