by Amy Vodarek, MScN, ACC
In the more than 150 interviews for the book Good Enough, and hundreds of coaching sessions with women professionals, speaking up to voice their unique ideas and thinking is a frequent challenge. Women describe their experience of falling silent just as the opportunity to speak up arrives, choosing to hold back rather than share their insights, concerns or ask a question. Whether she’s a business owner at her company stakeholder meeting or a leader at the executive table, silence rather than speaking up can hold women back from creating the impact and influence they desire.
One woman, Ellen, a senior executive in a mid-size company, found herself on mute in her executive team meetings. Each time she wanted to share her ideas or ask a question, her critic’s voice cautioned her to stay silent, hold back and avoid the pain of looking incompetent. She prepared for meetings ahead of time determined to add value and ensure they saw her as a valuable member of the team. Yet each time she opened her mouth, she was at a loss and barely able to share a brief update. Eventually, Ellen asked for help, she wanted to advance in the company and knew if she didn’t tackle this her chances were slim. More importantly, each time she avoided speaking up added to her growing feelings of not being good enough.
‘‘Caught in a sudden moment of self-doubt, they hesitate, questioning the value of their contribution and then say nothing. The fall-out of these missed moments to speak up provokes heartless self-criticism and admonishment.’’
Women have told me time again they are well prepared, have a relevant contribution to make and yet, they freeze when the moment to speak arrives. Caught in a sudden moment of self-doubt, they hesitate, questioning the value of their contribution and then say nothing. The fall-out of these missed moments to speak up provokes heartless self-criticism and admonishment. Staying silent, agreeing when we disagree and avoiding conversations to speak into our concerns and what we care about is how we silently give away our power. We hold our cards close so no one has the opportunity to evaluate what we have to offer.
Fear of feeling judged or inadequate can impede our best intentions to speak up. Our silence chips away at our self-confidence and each moment we hand over to fear and stay silent, we give away our power. Finding our voice whether at work, on a stage, with our neighbor or family member is essential for reaching our full potential.
Determined to overcome this challenge, we promise ourselves we will speak up next time or rationalize there will be better time in the future to share our idea. But unless we dig deep and look at what’s driving our fear and keeping us silent, we are likely to find it increasingly difficult to change our behavior.
What’s behind the fear of speaking into concerns? Women I’ve talked with have shared a variety of reasons including; the need to know they have all the information first, a desire to get it right, assumptions others know more or expect more, fear of being wrong or concern for wasting others time. The overarching concern is being judged as incompetent or not good enough and this stops us from moving from intention to action.
‘‘Awareness is the key; once we can see what is driving our silence we can choose how to respond in each moment. ’’
The good news is we can learn to recognize and manage the fear in the moment. Awareness is the key; once we can see what is driving our silence we can choose how to respond in each moment. Taking small, easy and consistent steps will help you speak up and be heard and each time you do, your confidence and courage expand.
Here are the practices I share with my clients and use myself to help move from silence to voice:
1. Begin with creating awareness. Notice when you speak up with ease and when you want to speak up but hold back.
2. When you want to speak up in a meeting or interaction but feel the urge to stay silent ask yourself;
3. When you see your moment to speak up take a breath, sit up in your chair or stand tall and say what you want to say. Remember you are enough and no one is perfect or has all the right answers.
‘‘Your ideas matter, your insights make a difference and our world needs your voice to be heard.’’
Sharing our ideas takes courage, it might sound simple but it’s not always easy or comfortable. Shining the light on what triggers us to fall silent gives offers freedom to choose to act differently. Share your intention to speak up and ask for help from a trusted colleague, mentor or coach rather than do it in isolation. And, if you catch yourself holding back rather than speaking up, extend self-compassion rather than harsh judgment. Each day offers a new opportunity try again and it takes courage to step into our potential. Your unique contributions can help shape the future; be it in your business, with your team, in your community or family. Your ideas matter, your insights make a difference and our world needs your voice to be heard.
Author’s note: The scenario with Ellen is adapted from the Good Enough book, Chapter 5: Taming Your Inner Critic (2017).