(Image Source: Harvard Business Review)
Note: The details of the coaching examples provided in this blog are composites based on real situations. Some names may have been altered to respect the confidentiality of my clients.
In coaching conversations, my clients often bring a situation where they find hard to decide if they need to speak up their mind with another person. On the one hand, they want to let the other person know how they feel and what they think about that person’s behavior; on the other hand, they feel so ambivalent about whether to have a candid conversation with the person involved. Upon exploration, I find that there’s usually some fear that makes them stuck, such as the fear of being disappointed, fear of being judged, fear of being rejected…
“If I tell my colleague that I really don’t like him speaking to my boss instead of approaching me first, he will probably say that I’m too sensitive. What’s the point of even speaking up?”
“I’m afraid if I raise my question about salary increase, my boss will think that I’m ungrateful for what I’ve been given already.”
“If I tell my boss that I would like to have more autonomy for making some decisions, he will talk me down.”
When we speak up our minds, we can receive all kinds of responses, some positive, some negative. We just don’t know how the other person will respond until we approach them. Yet some of us tend to stick with only one potential response, usually a negative one that we’re afraid of, that we simply cannot see other possibilities. That triggers our emptions and clouds our rational judgement. Consequently, we may choose to stay silent because that feels safer or more comfortable.
Alice was recently offered some new responsibilities in her organization. Apart from aligning expectations on her increased responsibilities, she also wanted to clarify with her manager whether there will be a salary increase along with the new responsibilities. Although she’d prepared what to say she still let it slip when she met her boss. She felt bad about herself, especially now seeing this as part of a pattern of not being able to self-advocate. Through speaking with her coach, Alice realized that while her boss could either agree with her or reject her request, in her mind, it’s already been set up that her boss will feel angry with her for bringing it up. To prevent that from happening, Alice preferred to stay silent while feeling undervalued. Later in the conversation, her coach pointed out that the feeling of being undervalued seems to have been a familiar feeling for Alice. It was in that moment when Alice came to see the long-term impact of not speaking up for her own needs and interests. Still fearing being judged or rejected, she decided to step out of her comfort zone and speak again with her boss.
I am not advocating that we should speak up whenever possible. But too many times we simply focus so much on the consequences that we forget that expressing ourselves itself is an important piece of maturing. Sharing what we think and feel, what we need, what is important to us … with another person allows us to honor our authentic self and have an opportunity to have our needs met. Contrarily, if we do not speak up, the other person may never know and may not have an opportunity to respond. In other words, the status quo may never change.
So how can we break the pattern of not speaking up when we need to? I share a few tips based on my personal experiences and coaching experiences.
1. Focus on long term impact versus just short term consequences. When you really want to speak to another person about something they have done, instead of being trapped by short term consequences of speaking up, think about what the potential benefits are in the long run, and what you may be sacrificing if you do not speak up. Usually if we do not let the other person know the impact of their behavior on us, we may miss important information that could potentially help us decide next steps. In the meantime, with limited information and untested assumptions, we may accumulate feelings of disappointment, anger or even resentment. Those feelings do not easily go away until we process them properly. Focusing on the long term impact on us and potentially the relationship allows us to have the courage to face conflicts and navigate through difficult conversations.
2. Focus on expressing ourselves versus changing others. Sometimes, we dread difficult conversations because we focus so much on changing the person’s mind or actions through the conversation. However, when we realize that it’s perhaps not easy to achieve this, we begin to procrastinate or let it slip. Yet, whether the person may change or not is not in our control at all. Expecting something that we have no control over is both inviting disappointment and wasting energy. However, what we do have control over is that we express our feelings and thoughts as clear as possible and that we deliver the message in a way that the person can hear us. Moreover, when we focus on sharing our own experiences and observations instead of wanting to change the other person, the other person will less likely be defensive in the conversation.
3. Know our personal values and those values we need to embody to prepare ourselves for difficult conversations. Values are what is important to us. Recognizing our core personal values and honoring them through our decisions is important to being who we are. When you find yourself hesitant to approach a difficult conversation, check your personal values: what role do my core values play in this situation? To what extent am I living these values right now? To fully embody my values, what does it mean then for the conversation that I’m thinking about? Sometimes, we may find it conflict with our core values approaching a difficult conversation. For example, we may value both harmony and honesty. Yet we really want to deliver candid feedback to our team member. Then we can ask ourselves: which value do I want it to prevail in this situation with this person? Or how can I reframe my perceptions so that I honor both values?
How about speaking up in a group? Learn more in my other post: Three Lessons I learned to help myself and others speak up their minds.
I hope this post triggers some thoughts or feelings around how you are doing with speaking up your minds. If it does, I’d love to hear your experiences and insights!
If you like this post and would like to receive such lessons and insights drawn from real life stories, you can subscribe to my monthly newsletter. Your email address will NEVER be rented or sold.
Lucy Qian, Life Coach, PCC (ICF)
About Lucy Qian, International Life Coach
Lucy’s clients say that she has a superpower for helping them see clear direction and next steps, no matter how confused they are in the beginning. Through coaching with Lucy, they become clear about who they are and know what they really want.
Lucy is a certified coach in different settings: Professional Certified Coach (PCC) by the International Coaching Federation (ICF), Certified Laser-focused Life Coach by the Life Coaching Group, and Organizational Coach by the Institute of Executive Coaching and Leadership.
In her blog, A Journey to Clearness, Lucy shares life experiences and lessons from her practice as an international life coach.
Learn more about Lucy.