We all know the unique frustration and self-doubt that comes with staying quiet when we have something to say.
There are lots of reasons why you might do this in your own life, whether you stay quiet out of shyness, fear of rejection, lack of confidence in your perspective, or aversion to conflict.
You probably know that there are good reasons to practice speaking up, but it's extremely tough to break the habit of staying quiet. For example, you may have been socialized into quietness at a very young age.
In this guide, we'll explore some of the most significant reasons why it's worth putting in the time and effort required to change your behavior.
Next, we'll turn to a step-by-step process you can use in order to start speaking up. Throughout, we'll consider barriers you might face, and look at some of the most common contexts in which you might benefit from speaking up.
You wouldn't be reading this if part of you didn't feel like it's important to start speaking up. Perhaps there's some particular goal you want to achieve, at work or in your relationships, and you already feel driven to make adjustments to your self-expression.
However, if you look at concrete reminders of exactly why finding your voice matters, it can be easier to motivate yourself to act in new ways and to sustain those new behaviors once they're established.
Let's consider some of the reasons why staying quiet is problematic, and summarize some of the benefits associated with being more verbally assertive.
As noted above, you might opt to stay quiet partly because you don't want to get into arguments or create tension between yourself and other people. In fact, being silent is just another way of communicating; it doesn't allow you to opt-out of communication, no matter what you might hope.
So, whenever you take part in a conversation and choose to say nothing, those around you are free to make their own judgments about what that means. When you're in a context in which you disagree with someone and yet don't say so, your silence looks like tacit agreement.
In a work setting, this can lead your colleagues to assume that you're on the wrong side of the situation, creating long-term resentment and a lack of trust. Meanwhile, in a relationship, accidentally signaling agreement through silence can lead to your partner thinking you're happy when you're not. This denies them the opportunity to meet your needs.
Sometimes, people who don't speak up have a mistaken impression of how much others can infer from their body language (or from the silence itself). So, if you don't state your perspective and assume that people can read your mind, you're likely to end up being disappointed. Similarly, other people could also find your disappointment irritating, as they will feel it was unfair of you to expect them to have psychic powers!
In romantic relationships and friendships, expecting your friends to be mind-readers denies them a chance to get to know the real you. In time, your loved ones may also come to resent (and feel exhausted by) the process of guessing what you want.
Meanwhile, in a professional setting, expecting clients or colleagues to read your mind can undermine the functionality of a working team, or it can lead to poorer customer service. The bottom line is some people might guess your intentions correctly, but the majority will not.
To put a more positive spin on the issue of speaking out, we should consider one of the major benefits of doing so: namely, promoting awareness. When you express your views and your knowledge, you allow other people to learn from you, and you can bring important issues to their attention.
For example, consider how this might occur at work. If you hear someone using a slur in conversation and speak up about why this word is problematic, others may think twice about using it again. You help promote personal growth and encourage conscientiousness about values.
This benefit of speaking out also applies on a larger scale, when choosing to allow your voice to be heard can influence everything from a decision about your community to the politics of your government. In contrast, silence can unintentionally promote repression and stagnation. Never underestimate the power and potency of one loud, clear and fair voice.
On a related note, speaking out can allow you to inspire others, creating a chain of inspiration that can lead to significant change.
Not only can the content of what you say to inspire other people, but the very fact that you're choosing to speak up will show other people that it's possible to do so.
In response, they might well begin to work on finding their voice in their own life, expressing their needs more clearly, or sticking up for someone who needs support.
There are particular contexts in which speaking up can be especially inspiring. For example, if you're a teacher, speaking up models this positive trait for your students, many of whom will face unique struggles in finding their own voice.
The same goes for being a parent, aunt, or uncle when modeling good communication for your children plays a key role in showing them that it is both acceptable and beneficial to speak up.
When you're silent, you don't know whether anyone is on your side. You don't know who shares your views or values, who wants the same things, or who has the resources to support you with particular difficulties.
This can be a lonely isolating position to be in, and you rob yourself of the chance to connect with people who are similar to you.
If you speak up, you might be surprised to discover just how many people have the same feelings, thoughts, and ideas. At worst, maybe no one shares your perspective just yet, but listening to you gives people cause to question their views.
Once again, think about this in a work setting. When you break your silence, you can form new alliances with people who have agreed with you all along. Alternatively, you might spark perspective shifts in your colleagues, eventually encouraging others to share your views on how things should be done.
A final but equally important benefit of speaking up is that it can help to relieve stress in a major way.
When you keep all your emotions inside, they build up to a point where they negatively influence your physical and mental health. In addition, anger or hurt can start to explode out of you at unexpected or inappropriate times.
In contrast, speaking up lets you vent some of what you feel before it gets to the stage of hurting you. It can certainly be challenging to be honest about your feelings, but you'll experience a sense of release once you do.
This consequence of speaking up is especially important in relationships, where repressed and denied feelings can ultimately sour a whole dynamic. It's much better to own your emotions, communicate them to your partner, and talk frankly about how these feelings can be addressed in a way that improves the relationship.
Now that we've surveyed some of the major reasons why it's worth learning how to speak out, let's tackle the question of how you can learn to break your habit of being silent.
By following these six steps, you'll slowly cultivate an ability to express yourself authentically, honestly, and respectfully, whether you're dealing with colleagues, your partner, or friends and family.
At each stage, we'll explain why the step matters and how you can enact it in common scenarios. When you practice this approach for long enough, speaking out will gradually become second nature and will no longer require conscious effort.
When you're not used to speaking your mind, practicing in writing can help you build your confidence in two ways.
Firstly, there are many contexts in which it's acceptable (and even wise) to read your thoughts or feelings out loud after writing them down. This applies in business meetings and in seminars, but also in therapy and within significant conversations with your loved ones. In fact, when you read something out, you show that it's important to you and that you've given it some serious thought.
In addition, when you don't feel it's appropriate to read your thoughts from a piece of paper, you can still write down what you want to say and then practice it before the event. Don't aim to memorize your thoughts word for word, as this can lead you to feel anxious. Instead, memorize the general sentiment and key points, reassuring yourself you can express them when the time comes.
It's hardest to find your words (or indeed the confidence to say them) when you're feeling anxious. If you're used to staying quiet, it's perfectly natural to feel nervous at the thought of speaking out.
However, it's only by developing strategies for dealing with that nervousness that you'll gradually come to view sharing your thoughts as something natural and non-threatening.
There are lots of different ways to calm yourself down. For example, daily mindfulness practice will help you cultivate a generally more relaxed disposition.
If you know in advance that you will have to share your thoughts on a particular day, reducing your caffeine intake can help you stay calm. And within the moment itself, try to breathe slowly and deeply, inhaling from your solar plexus.
Some people also find it helpful to chew gum or a small snack when anxious, as this can trick the body into believing that nothing stressful is happening.
If you present your thoughts without confidence or clarity, you likely won't be heard properly and this can discourage you from speaking out again in the future.
It's a good idea to practice using an authoritative, firm voice; one that makes it obvious that you are serious, but which is not in any way aggressive. You can also increase your chances of being heard by annunciating clearly, making sure that your words are easy to understand.
Further, consider a more direct approach to making yourself heard. Don't be afraid to say “I've got something to say that I'd really like you to think about”, or “Can I please have your full attention for a few minutes?”.
As long as you approach such requests in a respectful way, you signpost the importance of your thoughts and reduce the chances that someone will just absently half-listen to you while looking at their phone.
As with most things, learning how to speak up is best approached gradually, and in small doses. This will slowly help you learn that you don't need to be afraid, and show you that the consequences are generally going to be positive.
For example, if you struggle to voice your opinion in a group, think of what you'd want to say to the group and test that idea out with a friend.
They can help you work out how to present it and point out any useful amendments you can make. Similarly, practicing a presentation in front of a friendly audience helps you get used to the presence of other people also provides a valuable opportunity for feedback.
Try to keep track of the efforts you're making to speak up and evaluate your progress every couple of weeks. If you're pleased with what you've done, set yourself a new challenge or goal for the next two weeks.
Body language really does matter when you're trying to speak out, both in terms of how people will perceive you and how you'll feel when you're communicating.
For example, there's compelling research that shows the positive impact of the “power pose” – standing with your shoulders back, your feet slightly apart and your head held high. Meanwhile, “powerless” poses (e.g. lowering your head when talking) reliably make speakers feel less confident and make hearers rate the contributions less highly. There are studies proving that power poses elevate testosterone, the hormone most strongly connected to feeling powerful and in control.
As well as thinking about these established approaches to body language, give some thought to what makes you feel most confident. Do you have particular clothes, shoes, or ways of styling the outfits that make you feel assertive? Take advantage of all of these things when you need to feel good about speaking up.
Finally, it is, of course, important not to overshoot your goal. Depending on how you approach assertiveness, you can come across as aggressive or just plain rude. The trick is to aim for what some psychologists call “loving assertiveness”. The cornerstone of this approach is openly and respectfully communicating your boundaries.
For example, when someone asks you to do something, you can be submissive (agreeing to whatever you're asked), aggressive (saying something like “No, I won't do that–get lost!”), or assertive (saying something like “I'm afraid I have too much other work to do this week, but how about you ask [person X]?”
Ideally, being lovingly assertive also involves offering empathy. So, in the example of assertiveness from the previous paragraph, you could start out by saying “I know you really want to get this project done in time” or “This project is really exciting!”. This approach makes you affable and friendly but allows you to hold your boundaries.