John R. Stoker, President and CEO of DialogueWORKS, contributed this article to BusinessNewsDaily's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.
Why don't we speak up? Pure and simple, we are afraid. Our fears are a function of our self-preservation. The irony of fear is that it doesn't exist outside ourselves, but is the creation of our own mental musings.
I like to remember that fear is really an acronym for Fantasized Experience Appearing Real.
Our fears are born of our perception of reality. Whether our fears are based in reality or not is irrelevant because they are real to us. After all, our timidity or our fears give rise to the feelings we experience that serve to reinforce the fears we possess.
In the realm of holding difficult conversations, we allow our assessment of what the consequences might be to dictate whether we will speak up or not. In trying to decide whether we will speak up, we project onto others what they will think, feel and do in the future with no evidence — other than the evidence that we make up in the moment.
Nevertheless, our thoughts deliver real feelings that drive us to act in certain ways. Once we act, we ground our thinking into a material reality that reinforces what we originally thought. For example, years ago I knew of a junior executive who discovered information that would have been quite damaging to his company. Not wanting to be the bearer of bad news, he chose to say nothing. A number of months later when the "bad news" was discovered, he was terminated for not speaking up. Ironically, his thinking ended up creating the very thing that he originally dreaded — being fired.
What makes our thinking so pervasive is that we support our projection of a future state by creating a story that serves as the justification for our inaction. For example, in the story above, the junior executive might have said to himself, "I can't say that to my boss! He'll fire me." Notice that this statement is a projection of a future negative consequence. Usually such projections are negative. The possibility of speaking up in this case was perceived as a walk off the plank into the shark tank.
After we project, we then create a justification that supports our silence. For example, the junior executive might have created his own supporting evidence with any of the following justifications:
- "I need this job!"
- "This is exactly the type of news that my boss hates!"
- "I have a more important pressing deadline right now!
Often our justifications or stories could be true or feel true, and that's what makes them so compelling. We make negative projections of the consequences that might befall us and offer justification that may be true, partially true, or not true at all. But we still need the real or true story to prop up the action or inaction we decide to undertake. This cycle of projection, justification and inaction is what keeps us from talking about what matters most.
Here are five simple tips for eliminating your fear of speaking up in a particularly challenging situation.
Surface your thinking
You want to identify the projection or negative story you are telling yourself by finishing this simple sentence:
- "I'm afraid to speak up because __________."
Don't stop with just one example. Try and finish the sentence as many times as you can. The more projected outcomes you can surface, the greater the opportunity to expose the source of your fear.
Look for logic
Our brain loves evidence. Our interpretation or judgment of a certain situation should be based on real data — verifiable facts. When we go looking for hard data, it is not uncommon to find little substantiation in our thinking. We often see our assumptions or the projections we invent as the facts. Herein is the problem. If there are no supporting facts, then you know that you are making up the potential negative outcomes.
Examine your accuracy
Recognizing that your projection is devoid of supporting evidence should help you realize that your thinking is a fabrication you have created to protect yourself. You might also ask two questions to challenge your thinking:
- "Is the way I'm seeing this absolutely true?"
- "What data do I have that supports my thinking?"
Remember to ask yourself these questions of your assumptions of future outcomes. Do not ask these questions of your justifications because supporting justifications are usually true. Just because the justification or supporting story is true, you don't want to be hoodwinked into thinking that a true story also makes the projection true or accurate.
Explore what you know
This requires deliberate, conscious self-reflection about what you really know to be fact. Here are a couple of questions to help guide you:
- "What do I know?"
- "What do I not know?"
- "What do I need to know?"
Determine the cost
After you have consciously recognized the inaccuracies or incomplete nuances of your thinking, you may still want to assess the potential consequences for sharing what you think. You might ask:
- “Will speaking up help or hinder the situation?”
If the potential payoff far exceeds the benefits of keeping silent and there is no evidence to support your fears, then you should venture talking about that which will improve the situation. We should avoid losing an opportunity to improve a professional or personal situation simply because we think things won’t work out. We need to admit when we don’t know and remember that nothing ventured is nothing gained.
Overcoming our fear of speaking up in what we perceive to be a potentially difficult situation is not easy. Much of the challenge arises from the feelings we generate that supports our original assumptions. Being able to recognize your thinking and the incomplete assumptions that you hold should help you make a conscious and informed choice about whether you should share your thoughts or not.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher.
John Stoker is founder and president of DialogueWORKS, LLC. He is also the author of Overcoming Fake Talk (McGraw-Hill). Stoker is a speaker, facilitator and expert in the areas of communications, critical thinking, performance management, change management, leadership, conflict resolution, and emotional intelligence. He has presented to and trained in multiple Fortune 500 companies, including well-known organizations such Turner Broadcasting, Lockheed Martin, Honeywell, and Cox Communications. He has worked with individuals, teams, and audiences large and small for over 20 years.