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  • Writer's pictureHolly Corbett

Be Brave: 3 Strategies To Speak Up For Yourself And Others

A line of colorful microphones on desk
Speaking up can be uncomfortable, but can also create positive change with some simple communication techniques that can help you speak up effectively. GETTY

Speaking up is hard to do. So hard in fact, that many of us stay silent rather than risk alienating ourselves from the group or damaging our relationship with another person.

Why might you hold back an idea that goes against the majority opinion, or stay quiet when a colleague has said something inappropriate?

“The bottom line is that we are afraid,” says Amber Cabral, inclusion strategist, coach and author of the new book, Say More About That…And Other Ways To Speak Up, Push Back, And Advocate For Yourself And Others. “We’re in a constant state of evaluation and are trying to be well liked and accepted. How others’ perceive us is such a big deal, and if you don’t feel like you have the exact right words or you feel that you could potentially rub someone the wrong way, you ultimately end up holding your tongue rather than taking the risk.”

Neuroscientists pin this tendency to keep quiet rather than use our voice to something called “social threat,” where speaking up puts us at risk of lessening the social rewards we experience during personal interactions, such as an increase in status and relatedness.

The irony is that, if done right, speaking up can actually increase feelings of connectedness and relatedness—but the act of speaking up itself is almost always uncomfortable because of feelings tied to social threat. “You have to be willing to push past this discomfort I describe as a feeling of tightness somewhere between your nose and your navel, and see it as a signal that you’re about to do something brave,” says Cabral. “The more you do that, the more you’ll see you can survive doing brave things and not have to live a life where you're, say, not being treated equitably because you didn't speak up. Discomfort is a part of growing and exposure.”

Cabral says we can all develop the skills we need to effectively speak up, and that it’s vital to learn these skills. “Ultimately we can’t get to a world where people can be thoughtful, considerate, respectful and equitable in how they treat people if we are not willing to lean into our discomfort and let others know what the proper way of treating folks really is. People don’t know what we need if we don’t speak up, because the majority of us are only thinking about life through our own eyes. Speaking up can help grow awareness, and people can’t change without that awareness.” Here are a few approaches Cabral suggests for effectively using your voice.

Gently Name The Bias

Cabral emphasizes that everyone at some point has had the experience of facing bias or not feeling like they quite belonged, depending on the room that they’re in—whether it be because they have an accent, their age, have a disability or a variety of other dimensions of identity.

Yet directly challenging some of the more subtle things that may fall into stereotype buckets can put the other person on the defensive, and therefore make them less open to hearing another’s perspective. One tactic that can make it easier to assert what needs to be said is by preempting a bias the listener may consciously or unconsciously hold. “I’ve spoken up before by starting with, ‘At the risk of sounding like an angry Black woman, I’d like to share a few concerns I have about this conversation,’” says Cabral. “Most of the time people will immediately jump in and say, ‘No, no, we don’t see you that way!’ but gently calling out a possible stereotype up front can preempt it by helping make others more aware of the risk I’m taking.”

Lead With A Question

Speaking up when there is a power imbalance creates a lot of anxiety because the stakes are high, such as with an employee and a boss. Cabral recommends people lead with a question to invite discussion, so speaking up doesn’t feel confrontational.

“It could be something like, ‘I appreciate you sharing that with me. Are you open to another perspective?’” says Cabral. “Most people will say yes, and now I’ve created an opportunity for you to invite me into the dialogue to share what I want to say. When I’m talking to my leader, I might not be comfortable saying, ‘No, that’s wrong,’ but I might be more comfortable saying something like, ‘Can you say more about that? I’m not sure I follow what you mean.’ This encourages the person to rethink what they said, how they framed it, and the impact of that. Simply asking a question invites the person to share their perspective, and that’s what people want—to be heard. A well-positioned question can create the environment where you both get to hear and be heard.”

Instead of Calling Out, Try Being A Role Model

“I get why people are really focused on calling out bad behavior, but I think there is a place for everything,” says Cabral. “There are absolutely folks that need a mirror held up to show what they’re doing is not okay, but sometimes it’s literally just folks on the learning journey who haven’t caught on yet or who aren’t aware.”

One way we learn is by watching others, so role modeling the right behavior or language can help show people alternative ways of behaving or speaking that can be more inclusive. “Don’t underestimate that you can help give others the skills to navigate spaces just by them seeing how you do it,” says Cabral. For example, if you’re in a meeting full of executives and the president of the company is using the incorrect pronouns for one of the attendees, chiming in to correct them may not be ideal. “It could be as simple as being very deliberate when you reference that person to make sure you use “they” as their pronoun, and put a slight emphasis on it to highlight it,” says Cabral. “That feels better than a call out, and you modeling the right things lets other folks know what to do.”

The bottom line is that speaking up can build bridges rather than burn them, but it calls for pushing past discomfort and using effective techniques that create space for deeper dialogue and ongoing learning. There is power in using your voice—and in showing yourself and each other some grace—that can create a ripple effect of positive change.

*Article originally published in Forbes


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