Speak up, but be sure to do it the right way

Many people feel scared to speak in situations where they ought to. As a result they harm themselves and their relationships with others

girl with placard, i want to say something

Do you have trouble speaking up even when you have something meaningful to contribute to a conversation? Do you fear speaking up when you disagree with someone? Do you prefer to stay quiet than to express yourself?

If your answer is “yes” to even one of the above questions, then you suffer from a communication disorder. Staying silent when you ought to speak is as bad as speaking incessantly without consideration for others. Whether it’s at work or at home, the inability to express oneself openly is ultimately detrimental to one’s mental and spiritual health. One of the first steps you need to take in order to remedy the inability to communicate is to decide to speak up. However, this can be tricky, because the irony about candour or openness is that it’s easy to practise except in those moments when it really counts. So, how can you correct this?

Deciding to speak up

If you’re nervous that what you have to say won’t be well-received [or if you get anxious about speaking up to begin with], it is hard to get the words to come out of your mouth. People often imagine the worst-case scenario will happen once they do: they’ll be shot down, embarrassed, offend someone, perceived as incompetent or as a troublemaker, and so on. Rather than risk these outcomes [which feel real], they withhold their ideas and opinions. They play it safe, but, in doing so, they deprive their loved ones of a glimpse into their true selves.

Try training yourself to speak up even if you’re uncomfortable when you do so

Those who have a hard time speaking up often want to feel confident that their words will be well-received before they speak. That rarely happens in challenging conversations. Things always seem worse the moment before you speak up. But once you do, how often does the worst-case scenario happen? The consequences we imagine are far worse than the actual consequences we experience.

The real challenge is to overcome the internal obstacles that prevent words from flowing. Here are some tips to help do that.

Tips to help you express

  1. Disconnect “feeling uncomfortable” with speaking up. People unconsciously connect feelings and actions in their minds. People who are significantly overweight are often coached to disconnect the feeling of hunger from the act of eating; they train themselves to eat prescribed portions at prescribed times. They learn to be hungry and not eat. Similarly, try training yourself to speak up even if you’re uncomfortable when you do so.
  2. Consider the best-case scenarios to balance the worst-case scenarios. We automatically think of the bad things that might happen to us if we speak up. But what about the good? Maybe what you have to say will help solve your friend’s problem or make your loved one realise their mistake. At work, maybe what you say represents the feelings of others in the group and they appreciate your candour.
  3. Find other ways to hear your voice in a situation. The more you participate in conversations, the easier it becomes to speak up. Find a way to contribute that feels less risky. Ask questions of others. The more you hear your voice in a conversation, the easier it becomes to speak up when it feels hard and uncomfortable to do so.
  4. Ask someone you trust to give you feedback. Let that person know that you are trying to find ways of communicating constructively and that you’d like to know how your efforts are impacting the relationship. At work, you could ask a close colleague to help you out. Let them know as specifically as you can what you’re working on. After a meeting, ask for their impressions on what you did well and what you could do differently in the future. If you ask for their feedback, DO NOT ARGUE OR GET DEFENSIVE. Take notes, say thank you, and work on those behaviours at the next meeting.
  5. Don’t take responsibility for other people’s reactions. We often stop ourselves from speaking because we’re worried about how others will react. This actually does a great disservice to ourselves and others. We don’t say hard things that may help others be better because we don’t want to hurt their feelings. And so they don’t get better. Manage your half of the relationship and let others manage theirs. Say what you need to say respectfully. Then allow people to have their reactions.
  6. It’s not making a mess but cleaning it up that makes a difference. People often think that once they say what’s on their mind, the consequences will be lasting. If, for instance, you offend someone, it’s easy to think that you’ve eroded trust or damaged that relationship permanently. But communication is a process that unfolds over multiple interactions. If you say something that didn’t come out as you intended, or if it is misunderstood, you have options. You can clarify what you meant. You can apologise. You can try stating your message a different way. Your speaking isn’t the end of the conversation. It’s your beginning. So if it doesn’t come out right or has unintended consequences, you have multiple opportunities to make yourself understood and to understand the other person’s perspective.


Communicating openly and freely may be challenging in the beginning. So start doing just one thing differently, and then build on your success. When you say what you mean, mean what you say, and say it in real time, you’ll find that you’re able to address problems in the moment, thus freeing your mind and energy for more creative approaches that benefit you and your loved ones. May the skills be with you!

Checklist for candour

Say what you mean

  • Be transparent. Speak clearly and neutrally about the issues that are bothering you.
  • Give specific examples that support your point of view.
  • Be concise. Get to the point quickly.

Be open to others’ point of view

  • Ask clarifying questions to understand different perspectives.
  • Build trust by listening to the other’s point of view, even when you disagree with it or it upsets you.
  • Work to understand feedback you’re given by a loved one or colleague, even when it’s poorly delivered or, in your eyes, incorrect.
  • Remember that healthy conflict is a characteristic of a healthy relationship.

Speak up in real time

  • Challenge decisions if they seem unfair to you and offer your perspectives on the matter.
  • If you feel internal conflict, speak up so that people can grapple with the issue at a deeper level.
  • Preface your comments to prepare others  for  what’s to come  [e.g. “I have a different point of view…”]

This article first appeared in the September 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Jim Bolton
Jim Bolton is the President of Ridge Training—a firm that helps employees communicate productively so they save more time, get more done, and have more fun. Jim has presented at national conferences in the US, and has been quoted in numerous business publications including Executive Excellence and the Harvard Management Update.


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