How to speak up when it matters


Ever known in every sinew in your body that you should speak in a meeting where tough decisions were being made, but held back? Even against your better instincts?

If you have, you are in good company. For many women (and more men than we realise), it’s not speaking that’s the challenge, it’s speaking in the moment when, as Eleanor Roosevelt put it, the ‘hard choices’ come. When we have to decide, “What do I believe? To what extent am I prepared to live up to my beliefs? How far am I ready to support them?”[1]

A senior social worker talked of hearing a high-level council discussion about the closure of care homes, something which would affect many elderly people who were her responsibility. Her instincts screamed that it was wrong but for some reason she stayed silent. She realised later an inner voice had been nagging at her “what if you’ve got it wrong?” Big decisions were made that she felt deeply were flawed. She vowed to do it differently next time.

So, why do we stay silent when we should speak out? What I often hear is that women struggle with the idea of being the ‘difficult’ one in the room. Data from a 2003 study hints at some good reasons for their wariness [2]. When a biography of the ambitious entrepreneur ‘Howard’ Roizen was presented to students, they viewed it as appealing. Change the name to Heidi (the real entrepreneur) and students respected her but described her as ‘selfish’ and ‘not the type of person you would want to work for’.

As Sheryl Sandberg comments in Lean In [2]: “If a woman pushes to get the job done…if she focuses on results, rather than pleasing others, she’s acting like a man. And if she’s acting like a man people dislike her.”

Sociolinguist Deborah Tannen has explored these often unconscious biases in her work on language. As Tannen explains, in primitive societies the best chances of survival are status/ strength (having the biggest weapon) or connection/ warmth (having the protection of the biggest tribe). It’s no surprise that for thousands of years women were socialised to focus on connection and on warmth. Even in a civilised meeting where we are safe to show our strength, it can take self awareness and boldness to move out of the evolutionary comfort zone.

In your own ‘hard choices’ moments where speaking out is crucial, I recommend you keep these three strategies up your sleeve. That is, until we evolve to understanding that strength and likeability can go hand in hand for women as well as men. I very much hope that change is coming.

  1. Focus on the Common Purpose: When it comes to speaking out, be very clear who you are speaking for. For the social worker struggling to voice her dissent, what made the difference was remembering that she was speaking for elderly people in homes. Worrying about whether her colleagues liked her was irrelevant. Her purpose helped her find her voice.

  2. Show Your Strength: Where you need to show strength, it really helps to focus on being respected rather than being liked. In ‘hard choices’ moments, it doesn’t matter whether they like you or not, get the job done. It can help to sit up, to ‘pull yourself to your full height’. If you need an instant authority boost, consciously speak in a slow, calm, concise way. When you’ve said enough, pause and close your mouth. Let others fill silence. And try palms down gesture: it takes your voice tone down low into credible ‘respect me’ style.

  3. Balance Your Strength with Connection and Warmth: Then, job done, to protect from society’s current biases, make sure to balance your strength with warmth. It’s what Sandberg references as being ’relentlessly pleasant’, suggesting it helps to focus on ‘smiling frequently, expressing appreciation and concern…solving a problem as opposed to taking a critical stance.’

The Pareto principle may help. Your 20 per cent of steely strength can be balanced by the warmth and focus of your common purpose. It seems unfair that we have to dance between strength and warmth in a way that men don’t. Most of the time it’s more important to be effective than right. And sometimes it’s important to be right. It’s your call…

[1] Roosevelt, E. You Learn By Living; 12 Keys to a more Fulfilling Life, Harper Perennial, (1960)

[2] See Sandberg, S. Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, WH Allen, 2013. Sandberg cites the research in Ch. 3 “Success and Likeability”

Find out more at gravitasmethod

See Caroline talking in more depth about confidence.


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Caroline Goyder
Caroline Goyder worked as a voice coach at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama for nearly a decade. She is the author of Gravitas: Communicate with Confidence, Influence and Authority (Ebury).