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Stand Up, Speak Up - Being Assertive at Work

Updated: May 10



To contribute fully to our workplaces and use the opportunities around us, we need to feel able to speak up. We need to feel confident sharing our opinions, experiences, concerns, and ideas. Because, without feedback, how can things develop and improve? Teams are always most productive when people openly share their ideas and get involved.

 

Speaking up isn't just important for your company and team though, it's important for your health. Happy and productive employees are people who feel that their ideas and concerns are listened to. So, if we feel like our careers are developing slowly, or we are stressed and unproductive, this might be because we are not able to stand up and speak up.

 

So, let's look at some of the barriers to speaking up at work and what we can do about them.

 

Barriers to Speaking Up at Work


Everyone who finds it challenging to speak up at work will have a slightly different set of fears, but most people will have at least one of the following four main factors:


  • A fear of negative feedback - many people are afraid of being criticized, rejected, or judged by others.


  • A lack of confidence - some people don't feel their ideas are important enough, or good enough, to listen to.


  • A power imbalance - people who feel a power imbalance at work can worry about more powerful people disagreeing with them, not being interested in their ideas, or even putting their job at risk if they speak up.


  • Not knowing they can - sometimes people don't know they can share their ideas at work and that their input is helpful. People from cultures that focus strongly on respect for authority in the workplace often feel it's inappropriate to share their ideas because it looks like they are criticizing their boss.


It is important to recognize and understand our barriers to speaking up so we can start to break them down, make our voices heard, and share our valuable skills and ideas.

 

Practical Ways to Speak Up With Confidence

Now we have thought about the reasons most people don't feel comfortable speaking up, we can look at practical ways to overcome these barriers. Here are some suggestions on how to begin working on your fears:

 

Identify Your Fears


The first step in speaking up without fear is understanding exactly what you are afraid of. Ask yourself these questions to help you understand your barriers better:


  • What am I afraid will happen if I speak up? - Is it a fear of being judged or criticized? Are you worried about looking unintelligent or making your boss angry?


  • Do I have any evidence this will happen? - Is your fear because of something you know will happen or something you think might happen? Has this happened at this job, with this team, and in this situation?


  • How could speaking up be positive? - What are some good outcomes that could happen because of you speaking up? Would you feel proud, help your team solve a problem, or even demonstrate your skills and commitment to your work?


We as human beings are good at thinking about the negative outcomes of our actions because this helps to keep us alive in survival situations, but it's a lot harder to think of the good things. Instead of only thinking about the worst outcome possible, reminding yourself of the many other possible neutral and positive outcomes can be enough to overcome your fear and speak up.

 

Know Your Message


To be successful sharing your experiences and ideas it is important to be clear. It is much easier to speak up when you are 100% sure what you are speaking up about!


Here are some things to think about to make your message clearer:


  • What key message do you want people to understand?

  • What is your evidence?

  • How will speaking up help my team or company?


Your opinions are valuable, and your experience will support your company, so focus on what is important in your message. Understanding the key facts of an idea that is presented to you, it's supporting evidence, and how it will help your company make it much easier to support. Being clear on these points will also make you more confident and effective in your communication.

 

Focus on the Process, not the People


When you are speaking up at work, especially if it is about a problem, show that your feedback is a not personal attack. The way you speak up should show your feedback is about improving processes and being more productive, and using the 'passive voice' is helpful for this.

 

Here is an example of the same problem described in the active and passive voice:

 

(active voice) "William damaged the photocopier so we need a new one."

(passive voice) "The photocopier is damaged so I think we need a new one."

 

Practice Speaking Up


The more you practice speaking up, the more confident you will become. Here are some of the benefits of practicing speaking up at work and how you can do it most effectively:


  • Build up your confidence - start small with lower-stress situations and slowly work up to being confident in higher-stress situations with more people.


  • Improve with experience - what went well, and what could you try next time to make things better? Evaluate your own performance and you will get more comfortable with critical feedback from others.


  • Make it a habit - by making it a regular part of your life, you can build the habit of assertively speaking up with confidence.


  • Teach your body that speaking up is safe - our bodies remember the outcomes of stressful situations and this is what causes anxiety. Over time you can teach your body to reduce your anxiety about speaking up by doing it more regularly and having more positive experiences.


Be a Respectful Listener


It is easy when we are anxious to focus on delivering our message, and forget that speaking up is part of a two-way conversation. When you are asked questions, or get feedback on your idea, it is important to listen respectfully and think about your conversation partner's opinions.

 

Here are some things to think about when getting feedback on your ideas:


  • Listen actively - listen carefully to feedback and check that you understand by asking questions. If you need time to think before you reply, take that time, it shows you are interested in the feedback.


  • Be open-minded - you might begin speaking up with a strong opinion on a topic, but remember to stay flexible and focused on your company and team. If someone else has an idea that would be cheaper, easier, or more effective than yours this is great news. Being flexible means you can take the best parts of each idea and use them all together.


  • Respond thoughtfully - listen to other people's ideas and feedback with patience and respect and give helpful supportive feedback.


Get Support and Advice


Don't be afraid to look for support from others. Talk to a trusted friend, colleague, or mentor about your fear of speaking up at work, and ask for their advice and encouragement. Professional therapists are also a great help, and when you feel more confident taking critical feedback, you can even ask your boss to evaluate how you did.

 

Celebrate Your Progress and Learning


It can feel strange at first to celebrate our own progress, especially when it is in small pieces over a long time. Celebrating is an important part of building your confidence and becoming less anxious when speaking up. It makes our minds and bodies feel good, and it motivates us to continue with our improvements. It also helps to 'teach' your body that speaking up is safe, and eventually that it is productive and positive!

 

What you choose to celebrate is up to you, but here are some recommendations:


  • Every move in the right direction

  • Getting positive feedback after speaking up

  • Learning something new about yourself

  • Trying a new method or strategy for speaking up

  • Every time you do something at work that you couldn't do in the past


How you celebrate is also something individual, it can be anything from a square of chocolate to an hour in a sauna. What's important is that it's something you enjoy, and that you are taking time to reward yourself for all that hard work you are doing.

 

Wrap Up


Speaking up without fear can be a challenging but rewarding process, and it's something that anyone can learn to do with practice and patience. By identifying your fears, focusing on your message, practicing, being respectful to others, and celebrating your progress you can build the confidence and skills you need to speak up.

 

Speaking up is an important way to share your voice and make a positive impact on the world around you. With dedication and effort, you can become a fearless speaker and communicate your message clearly, openly, and with confidence. Your ideas and opinions are valuable, so share them!

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