Speak Up

Harassment and sexual assaults in the workplace dominate today’s news headlines. It has become a never-ending cascade of revelations blaring abuse of power accusations. It is disturbing to learn of the many high-profile producers, stars and TV news anchors who have misused their power and influence.  Each story offers us the same important invitation: “Speak up, speak truth and demand accountability.”

“Speak up because the day you don’t speak up for the things that matter to you is the day your life truly ends.”    – unknown

The importance to speak out can be applied beyond moments of violence, assault and harassment. Before we find strength in talking about these bigger issues, we must first flex our vocal muscles in everyday encounters. When we are able to speak from a place of calmness, clarity and confidence we build the courage and resilience to manage our other relationships in healthy ways. Read: Developing a Strong Spirit.

How do we speak up? 

Let’s understand that emotional responses -our own and others – provide valuable  information. They are, however, not a platform from which to communicate. Otherwise, we will end up regretting how we handle conversations in the “heat” of the moment. Maintaining  “equilibrium within” allows us the chance to slow down and find a “measured place” versus ramping up negative energy leading to a blowout. 

We don’t have to mimic others in the same way they express themselves. The beauty of listening with the heart – not from the head that wants to interrupt and take over – is an increased ability to sort out and tune into the message behind the words and gestures. In this way we maintain power and dignity, as well as find inner guidance to provide us the necessary clear words and non-combative energy. 

Speaking up requires getting in touch with what we value most: our own true selves. When our egos get in the way, we cannot be genuinely compassionate and understanding. Conversations instead revolve around winning and attacking others. We can’t see the bigger picture of why we committed to this partner, friend and co-worker. We lean towards subjecting our dearest friend or associate to our rage, judgment and bad feelings.

Speaking up is synonymous with showing up. The practice of life is about moving forward, falling down and getting up again. We reach for tools like curiosity, wonder and excitement as fuel. Another powerful tool is to be present – not flee – in times of pain, crisis, conflict and struggle. It is so tempting to walk away from discomfort and confrontation. But if we can fuse and focus our minds and hearts to seek solutions, the outcome will predictably be better every time. 

What if we don’t speak up?

When we withhold truth and forgiveness we feel lost and out of sorts. We may even subconsciously see ourselves as weak. Our self-worth begins to deteriorate slowly but surely. All parties will lack a coherent understanding of how to move forward. 

If negativity persists perceptions about the “state of the relationship” take over. Once judged as thriving, it’s now barely surviving. During gaps between conversations, unhealthy choices and behaviors insert themselves. Sadly, they offer phony solutions to the changed and radically altered circumstances. 


Rather than take a step back to reflect and get a fresh take on a situation, we avoid. Avoidance might look something like:

  • We schedule commitments so we don’t have to interact with the other person;
  • We take on new projects so we can claim we don’t have time to meet up and talk for more than five minutes;
  • We swap-out existing priorities with ones which keep us invisible, distracted and distant.

Substance-use is common for many seeking relief from the intensity of speaking up. They mentally anticipate the worst or more of the same, and so they self-medicate their anxiety and depression. Some even tell themselves they do a better job of expressing and managing feelings while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

The silent treatment is a course of inaction wherein nobody wins. The one initiating silence harbors negative emotions, and is overwhelmed and uncertain about their future role in the relationship. Other communication may have been attempted without satisfaction. For the one on the receiving end, this draining tactic supplies no feedback or resolution plan.

Who doesn’t like to complain and gossip when they are hurting or confused? For some reason, we want to be right all the time. Most people use gossiping and complaining as a primary mechanism for feeling better about themselves. If our adversarial partner/friend/co-worker doesn’t agree with us or we have reached an unfortunate impasse in the relationship, we look to the outside “world” to justify our position.

Although we inhabit a social landscape where gossiping and complaining is a typical behavior, it is a poor choice. It erodes trust and creates unnecessary hurt and suffering. It’s one thing to seek out professional help to deal with a situation or learn communication techniques. But if we’re in the business of telling people how wrong someone is, making up false stories or picking on someone in public, we are heading for troubled waters.

Where to go from here?

  1. Identify your feelings without judgment of the person as best you can.
  2. Prioritize your agenda. If you are able to communicate just one thing, consider it a good day. Two things? It’s a great day. 
  3. Set a time limit for a discussion and focus on one or two topics at most.
  4. Formulate a simple and achievable action plan.

What words can we use in tough times?

Hurting: “I am not okay.”  “I am hurting.”  “Something doesn’t feel right.”

Confused: “Help me understand.” “Can you say it another way?”

Shocked/Surprised: “I need a minute before I can respond.” Breathe or touch your toes. The chemicals in your brain respond, and can quickly return you to a calm place. 

Screaming*: Put physical distance between you and the other person. Remain calm and quiet; try not to shutdown but to stand in a confident stance. Use your eyes to tell the other person you are listening, but are confused at the outburst. After the person is done speaking, try these options:

“Can we regroup in an hour? I need time to respond to what you’ve said.”

“Please don’t talk to me this way. I really want to hear what you have to say and that tone of voice overwhelms me.”

“I’m going to walk away if you don’t stop yelling. Your behavior doesn’t feel right. I don’t feel safe.”

“Why are you yelling? I better understand when you speak with a lower tone of voice.”

“I don’t feel safe and need a minute.” 

*Call a trusted friend or 9-1-1 if you need help.

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