How to Manage Your Risk So You Can Speak Up

Photo on    VisualHunt

Photo on VisualHunt

This is one of my biggest pet peeves. 

A woman makes a point in a meeting, and no one seems to hear it. Then a man makes the exact same point, and suddenly it’s the most brilliant thing anyone has ever heard. 

There was a time when I thought I was the only one who’d ever experienced anything like this, but I’ve since learned it comes up a lot for women and people of color. 

And when it does, it feels like being caught between a rock and a hard place. Because it seems that any path you take from here carries significant risk. 

  • Because it can feel risky to say something like, “Actually, that’s what I just said.” Will they think I’m being too sensitive? And what if that lump in my throat makes my voice quiver? What if my frustration is obvious? What if I start crying?!

    And all these risks weigh heavier on women and people of color, because of stereotypes like the “hysterical woman,” or the “angry minority.” 

  • And there are risks to NOT saying something, too. Short-term: Suffering in silence is a morale killer, and repressed resentment can leak out and sabotage your working relationships in myriad ways. And long-term: There are material consequences to a person’s career when they are routinely overlooked as leaders.

    And again, all these risks weigh heavier on women and people of color, who don’t fit our deeply ingrained cultural templates for leadership, based on the model of a “distinguished” white man. 

Having said that, I find that most of us tend to emphasize the risks of speaking up, while glossing over the risks of staying silent. 

This uncomfortable can’t-win place is what’s often known as a double-bind. And I spoke with Rebecca Aced-Molina -- a dear friend and fellow nonprofit coach and facilitator -- about double-binds on episode 10 of the Dialogue Lab podcast. 

The good news: there are a few things you can do to get out of this rock and a hard place. 

The challenge? It takes truly committing to the value of your voice. That is the game changer. 

Here are a few steps you can take. 

>> 1. Stop second-guessing yourself by recognizing the double-bind for what it is.

There are a few common ways people second-guess themselves when they are in an environment that makes it hard to assert themselves. Does any of this sound familiar to you?

  • Doubting your perceptions: “Am I being over-sensitive? No one else even seems to notice this is happening."

  • Minimizing your experience in favor of consideration for others: “I don’t want to make a mountain out of a molehill, or offend anyone by bringing this up. I should just be happy that the point was made and the team benefitted from it.”

  • Wondering if it's your fault: “I probably didn’t express myself very clearly. And after all, people listen to Rob because Rob has so much more experience than I do.”

  • Basing the value of your presence in the room on the validity of a single comment: “It doesn’t really matter that they didn’t hear me, I wasn’t sure about what I said anyway.” 

Of course, there is nothing wrong with having consideration for other people. And it’s often reasonable to do a gut-check on our perceptions. But the problem is when we get stuck there, and turn consideration for others and self-doubt into reasons to put up with a problematic dynamic.

After all, this isn’t about whether any individual comment you make is right, wrong, average, or in anyway “good enough to be heard.” This is about YOU, in your seat, truly taking your place at the table, sharing your brilliance and learning from your mistakes along with everyone else. 

What I’ve found helpful for myself and with clients is first to name the dynamic. To say: 

  • This feels hard because it is hard, and it would be for just about anyone.

  • You aren’t alone in this, because many people have been right where you are.

  • And while others may be well-intentioned, there is a dynamic at play that is bigger than any individual, that it is counterproductive, and deserves to be addressed.

If you are having a hard time with this step, it can really help to do a gut check with someone you trust: a coach, a colleague, or a friend. 

>> 2. Create alliances at work to take action.

Start talking to colleagues about how you can have each others’ backs. 

For instance, you can adopt the strategy of “amplification,” that was created by women who worked in President Obama’s White House.

Here’s how it worked: if one woman in a meeting made a key point, another woman would repeat it, giving the original speaker the credit. And they would keep doing that until -- as described in two articles in the Washington Post -- “this forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution — and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.”

This tactic is brilliant not just for the effect it had on these particular White House meetings. The key was that the individuals who had trouble being heard saw the dynamic for what it was. They didn’t second-guess the value of their own perspectives. Instead, they worked together to address the dynamic. 

And I have witnessed firsthand that those kinds of alliances can be empowering -- not just in meetings where everyone is present -- but in meeting a variety of challenges. 

>> 3. Start building a practice of speaking up

Many people avoid speaking up until those repressed emotions start to leak out, eventually boiling over. And it’s an emotionally exhausting and disempowering cycle, swinging between repression and rupture.

Instead, build your self-expression muscles by actively seeking opportunities to stretch yourself. And it’s ok to take baby steps.

It’s smart, actually. Babies are great at learning, after all!

Think about it like having 3 zones: your comfort zone, your stretch zone, and your red zone.

The practice is to look for opportunities to speak up that provide you with enough risk to be a stretch, but don't put you in the red zone. 

For instance, maybe it’s: 

  • Setting a boundary: saying that no, you don’t have time to talk right now, but you can schedule something for later.

  • Being more emotionally vulnerable: This can include telling a friend how much you admire her, and how much her friendship means to you.

  • Asking for what you want: For instance, if there is a project you’d like to lead, say so, even if it means you have to negotiate with someone else who has also expressed interest.

Engage in this as an experiment. 

  • Each time you stretch, ask yourself, “what am I most afraid might happen if I do this?”

  • Then do it anyway

  • Then check and see, did your worst fear come true as a result of your actions?

  • If so, was it as bad as you feared it would be?

  • What lesson did you learn that you can apply going forward?

Keep practicing those skills, and I promise you that the next time you feel overlooked and unheard, you will be more ready and able to speak up.

-- So those are my 3 tips to be heard even when it’s hard. -- 

I’d love to hear from you: Do you ever have a hard time raising your voice? When was a time you did speak up, and what supported you in doing that?  

And if you want more one-on-one support in building your capacity to advocate for yourself, as well as for the communities you care for, just reply to this email and we can schedule a no pressure, free consult. 

Sit at the Table + Get off the Menu

Baltimore City Hall photo via    Pixabay.

Baltimore City Hall photo via Pixabay.

Episode four of the Dialogue Lab podcast features a conversation about the skills you need to build local power and create positive change in your city.

Click here to listen, or keep reading for 3 social impact lessons from this conversation with community advocate Chandra Brooks.

About Chandra Brooks

Chandra teaches women of color how to build local power for themselves and their communities from the ground up, and prepare for running for local office. She knows how, because she’s done it herself.

In her own words:

"I had to build my own visibility, my own clout as Chandra, in order to make things happen the way I wanted to see them. So not only as a person within an organization...but also I had to build it for myself, so I had some major influence on what happened in my city….

“I am just Chandra Brooks. Yeah, I have all these accomplishments now, but I'm just Chandra Brooks from the east side of San Jose that got kicked out of 3 schools, and that graduated pregnant. So understanding that if I can do it, you can do it.”

She is the former Vice President of the Silicon Valley NAACP, the former Northern CA staff director of SEIU, and was the Executive Director of a local nonprofit. She now sits on Santa Clara County’s Commission on the Status of Women and Girls. She’s also an author, an entrepreneur, and a mother of 4.

3 Lessons from the Lab

>> LESSON 1: Sit at the table, or be on the menu. <<

A theme Chandra comes back to again and again is the importance of having community leaders who are connected to the experiences of the people they serve.

And she told a couple of stories to illustrate.

One was a story of a school board that was sitting on funds meant to fix the air conditioning in the schools, while the kids and teachers struggled to learn inside the sweltering hot classrooms.

And another was her discovery that the women inside a Santa Clara County correctional facility were not getting the same kind of access to vocational training that men were getting. In fact, they had nothing but a broken-down embroidery machine.

Chandra is a commissioner on Santa Clara County’s Commission on the Status of Women and Girls, and chairs their work to oversee the Elmwood Women’s correctional facility.

And in that role, she has been working persistently over many months to push the warden and sheriff to address this. And then she shared this:

"And the only way I am able to do that is by being a commissioner and having a seat at the table. If I was just Chandra living on the east side of San Jose CA, with no position, with no title, with no action taken to get on these positions, then they wouldn't listen to me.

"Maybe I could send an email. But with no title behind my name, without any clout, without any development of my credibility, then it wouldn't really go as far. That's why I talk about the importance of taking our seats at the decision making tables."

>> LESSON 2: If you care about your community, then you are qualified to be at the table. <<

Chandra tells her own incredible story of becoming a mother at a young age, and refusing to believe it when others told her she wouldn’t amount to much.

And how every step of the way, it’s been her love for her kids and her community that has motivated her to push past her fears and self-doubt, to get herself into the kinds of roles where she can make a difference.

She also told the story of getting coffee with a young mother who reached out to her because she had wanted to run for school board. But then a school administrator told her that she wasn’t qualified, and unfortunately, she believed it.

But what Chandra reminds us is that for a lot of local leadership roles, if you are connected to and care about the community, then you are qualified. And it’s important we start to believe that. She said this about women, in particular:

"The thing with women specifically, is that when we get ready to run for office, or before we even decide to run for office, we're probably asked about 7-10 times to run, before we decide to do it. And with men, you really only have to tell them one time.

"...And men are so confident, they just go and do it. But with women, we second guess ourselves to take leadership roles."

>> LESSON 3: The other qualification is in showing up. <<

Chandra spoke about having her eyes opened through her experience as development director for a nonprofit. That is where she learned that to get the job done, she often needed to know the right people.

And so often what holds us back is the sense that the people in power sitting at “the table,” are fundamentally different than the rest of us.

They already know who is who. They already sit on the commission or they were elected to the board of education, so they must be much more qualified/smarter/powerful than the rest of us.

But we forget that these people all had to start somewhere too. And any of us can start, just by starting to show up.

I asked Chandra what she would suggest anyone listening to do as a first step, and she said:

"I would want them to go online and check to see what decision-making table they can sit on today, that they can apply for. Where can I apply to be on a board or a commission? Or maybe help with the local election in your community. Go volunteer, go walk precincts, because they need you."

And I see two reasons to do this.

One is that it’s important to show up to support the policies and candidates that will help our communities and to lend a hand to people who are trying to make a difference.

And the other is that these activities are a way to get to know who your local leaders are, and to build your own leadership credibility on issues that matter to you. It’s one thing to care about your community from home. And it’s another to show up and do what you can, when you can.  

So those are 3 things I took away from this interview with Chandra Brooks.

And so much of our ability to lead begins with the kind of confidence Chandra embodies. The kind of confidence that says, "yes I do belong here, because I understand this community, and I care."

If you would like to learn more about how I help leaders develop that kind of confidence and resilience, I'd love to hear from you.