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.