Overcoming a fear of speaking up

July 1, 1993

Overcoming a fear of speaking up

By Colin Ward, Ph.D.

By Colin Ward, Ph.D.

The Counseling Corner from the American Counseling Association

“Speak up. Say what’s on your mind. Tell us what you think.” It’s advice we all heard when we were young, but as we mature, some of us find it hard to follow.

Speaking up is difficult for many people to do. Speaking up, however, when done correctly, can and should be a positive experience. It demonstrates a willingness to share our experiences, perspectives and suggestions despite any negative reactions others might express. It also represents our ability to “hang on” to what we know in the face of self-doubt and criticism. Remaining silent impacts our ability to make a difference in our lives and the lives of those around us.

The following are principles aimed at helping you find the words to speak up in your relationships at home, at work and with your friends.

Principle One: Be courageous

It takes courage to speak up, especially when you’re not used to doing it. Self-doubt tends to creep in. This voice of caution is overwhelming. But don’t let self-doubt define how you choose to speak up. Acknowledge the three fears that are often associated with self-doubt: fear of retaliation; fear of rejection; and fear of resistance. The fear that others may retaliate by criticizing your views or reject you by suggesting that your views are “wrong,” are real fears. You are concerned about the possible loss of a relationship or responsibility for causing interpersonal conflict.

Resist the temptation to manage these fears by shutting down. Silence erodes the soul and fuels the powerlessness associated with each of these fears. As a person, you are not defined by these fears. Feeling fear does not make you fearful—it merely provides information about your history. Allowing yourself to feel fear is the bridge to every courageous act. Remember that speaking up is not the absence of self-doubt; it is stepping out in the face of it. It is rising up from your chair despite the urge to sit back and quietly exist. The recipe for speaking up is to mix the acknowledgment of self-doubt with refusing to accept the status quo.

Principle Two: Be respectful

Being a good listener is always the first step in becoming a good speaker. Show you understand the worldview, values and intentions of others before expressing your own. Remember, too, that shared understanding is not about shared agreement. Be sure your intention is not to convince, but rather to express the differences inherent in the human experience of each of us.

If you perceive that “we are all in the same boat,” the only outcomes available are to fight over the helm or succumb to another’s steering. In speaking up, convey the understanding that many ways are available to cross a river and how joyous the reunion will be when separate crafts still reach shore together.

It’s also important to take ownership of your experience and speak from your worldview. Start with the word “I” and hang on to what you know to be true while accepting the right of others to do the same. Messages flavored with “you” statements will generate resistance. Practice daily the art of catching yourself, taking a deep breath, and speaking as specifically as you can from your own experience without striking back. Don’t manage your fears by managing others.

Principle Three: Be decisive

The essence of every journey is not the voyage but the decision to cast away from shore. Speaking up is a decision to voice your convictions without being preoccupied with the outcome. The most difficult roadblock to speaking up is the decision to trust the process. To risk nothing is to gain nothing, and to have voiced something poorly is far better then not to have voiced anything at all. Like learning any new instrument, you will get better with practice. Be bold, and encourage others to do the same.

In summary, to be courageous, respectful and decisive are principles that can guide your skills in communicating and speaking up with others around you. To speak up is to embrace, rather than avoid the wonder and curiosity that life offers while accepting that there are no guarantees with any new endeavor. Finally, view speaking up as a gift you present to others and not a mandate for change. Rest in the knowledge you learned in childhood, that it is far better to give than to receive.

Dr. Ward, an assistant professor at Winona State University, is a published author as well as an experienced counselor, counselor educator and presenter.

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