Three Lessons I Learned to Help Myself and Others Speak up Their Minds
Updated: Aug 28
(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.)
When Nina came to find me as her coach, she described her situation as follows:
“I’m hard-working and I am good at what I do in my job. The odd thing is that when I’m in a group and want to share ideas, I always back off for no reason. Afterwards, I feel awful because I wasn’t myself. Sometimes, I have a good idea that I want to propose to management. I plan to put it on slides, but I almost never get the slides done. What’s also strange is that I’m usually fine to speak up in 1-on-1 meetings or small groups.”
Nina’s story is not unique. I have worked with a few clients who share the same desire as Nina, wanting to express themselves in front of others and not holding back. Plus, over the years, I have been working on myself to be more courageous in speaking up and standing firm on my own viewpoints. In this post, I will share a few personal learnings on overcoming fears associated with speaking up.
Put aside your self-judgement
When stories like Nina’s are presented in a coaching conversation, I always ask what specifically is happening when the client feels they cannot speak up or be true to themselves on the spot. Almost every time I notice that they have a loud inner chatter going on at the moment when it is difficult to express themselves. For example, “I feel if I raise my question, others will think I’m stupid. I probably should have known it already,” “If I speak up my mind, others will think that I am a difficult person. I don’t want to hurt the relationship.”
Timothy Gallwey, the author of The Inner Game of Tennis, points out that the more tennis players focus on thinking, circulating, judging, worrying how well they are playing on the spot, the less likely they are performing at their peak. The idea behind it is that once your judgmental mind establishes a self-identity based on its negative judgements, you start to become what you think. It is the same as in Nina’s situation, her constant “thinking” on the receptivity of her ideas causing interferences with her expression, which further lead her to believing that she’s poor at expressing her ideas in front of a group.
Putting aside your self-judgement does not mean ignoring errors or risks. It simply means seeing things as they are and not adding anything to them. What I mean is distilling the truth instead of labeling things as “bad,” “stupid,” as the latter triggers emotional reactions (e.g. frustration, anger, disappointment) that can make it more difficult for us to speak in flow of what we really want to express.
Next time in meetings, when you hear yourself saying those “if… then …” to yourself, take a pause, put it aside, and ask yourself “what is really true?” The truth is you do not know how other will react unless you speak up first. What’s also true is that you will probably never know others’ reactions if you don’t speak up. Discerning the truth allows you to quiet your self-judging mind and put your focus back on what you truly need. To learn more about the technique of discerning truth, visit my other post Self-coaching: lead your life with clarity, creativity and courage.
Recognize your need and get it met strategically
There are usually some fears when we don’t speak up our mind in front of others. Fears indicate unmet needs. Our unmet needs drive our behaviors, many times the behaviors we do not want. When I coached Nina on her situation, she realized that she felt quite unsafe to expose her thoughts and ideas to her co-workers, especially senior ones. The reason why 1-on-1 or small groups felt better for her is that there were fewer people “witness her mistakes,” as she put it. As we explored more deeply her feeling of unsafe, it became clearer to her that her need to be not wrong or mistaken was so strong that she had to hide her thoughts all the time as though that would not make her wrong. Since we identified Nina’s unmet needs, we then worked on creating a plan to get her need met so that it could no longer hold her back.
Every of us has unmet needs. There is no need to feel embarrassed or ashamed of. Identifying unmet needs is actually a sign of responsibility for ourselves. The process of identifying needs and getting them met is usually not something that I would suggest people to conduct totally on their own, simply because it would be much more effective and pleasant to work with a coach or therapist who has deep knowledge and experience in this aspect. If you are interested to learn more about unmet needs and how to get them met, read my earlier post Live out your best: taking ownership to get your own needs met
Detach yourself from the role you take
Another client had a similar situation as Nina. We call him George here. George found himself hesitate to practice his skills in front of his teacher and classmates in a group training course. He felt afraid to be judged by others for not being up to the standard, given that he’s the most senior student in the course. I asked him: what if you were asked to imitate your teacher in front of others by demonstrating the skills you learned, what difference would that make in terms of your hesitation? He immediately answered that he would feel much less pressured to practice his skills in front of others, because even if he failed, it would only tell that he was not good at imitating his teacher and that would not hurt him.
Not long ago I wrote a post about detachment of our roles from our identities. Our roles, e.g. employee, boss, parents, friends …, are just part of us but not the totality of who we are. Many of us are too attached to our roles to clearly see who we really are. The cost of the over-attachment is usually that we value ourselves largely depending on how well we perform our roles. For example, when your boss gives you positive feedback, you feel good about yourself. When they criticize your performance, you feel terrible as if suddenly you’re not good enough. In George’s case, he’s so attached to his role as a “good senior student” that he takes any potential negative feedback as criticism on him instead of his role. In coaching, when George realized that he was not his role and the cost he was paying to let his self-worth depend on others’ views, he felt sad. He’s sad not because of his increased clarity but because of his realization that he’s been doing this all his life. The good news is that once George realized the problem, he became much more eager to explore himself and start loving himself.
I hope the three reflections resonate with you in some way. If you are intrigued to learn more about what I have shared, here are the relevant posts:
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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.